LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The Trump administration caused an uproar with its plan to overhaul the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. Instead of some benefits, people would get a box of nonperishable, not fresh foods that are picked out by the government. This actually isn't a new idea. In fact, Native Americans have received that type of federal food assistance for decades. And this type of canned, processed diet has had devastating implications for their health. Here to explain is NPR's Maria Godoy. Good morning.
MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us a little bit about the history of these boxes sent to the reservations. What was in them?
GODOY: So the federal government has been giving food aid to Native Americans in one form or another for a very long time. Then in the '70s, when it started the food stamp program, which is now called SNAP, it also started this food distribution program on Indian reservations. Basically, with food stamps, you get vouchers. And you go to a store. And you can buy the food. But a lot of Native American reservations are located in very rural areas where there aren't very many grocery stores. So instead, they would get boxes of foods. We're talking canned nonperishables - things like canned meats and vegetables, canned peaches or powdered milk.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's the problem? I mean, a lot of people eat processed foods as part of their diets. Couldn't they also buy fresh food somewhere else?
GODOY: So even though this program was supposed to supplement people's diets, for more than half of the people who received the aid, this was their primary source of food. And those boxes didn't include fresh fruits or vegetables. I talked to one Choctaw Indian who grew up eating these foods. And she said for a lot of her friends, they just didn't even know what the - like, real spinach tasted - like fresh spinach or pineapples - until they were adults, and they could buy their own groceries. And there was also a visible health effect which she called commod bod. It basically refers to what you look like when you eat this highly processed diet. And, you know, you - tends to promote being overweight or obesity.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were there other health impacts?
GODOY: Yeah, absolutely. Before the 1950s, you didn't really see nutrition-related diseases like diabetes and obesity among Native Americans. It was pretty rare. And then as they started to adopt a more Western diet, you see the rates of these diseases grow. And then you have the program start in the 1970s. This - FDPIR is what they call it - the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. And after that, you see diabetes and obesity rates skyrocket among Native Americans.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what has been the response from Native Americans to the Trump administration's proposal to start sending these boxes to people around the country in place of food stamps, which let people pick out their own groceries at the store?
GODOY: So a lot of the Native Americans I talked to saw this new Trump proposal as really, like, a throwback to what they thought was wrong with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. For years, Native Americans have been working to improve the quality of foods they get. And they've had some success. These days, about a third of the tribes that work with the program have these distribution centers that look like small grocery stores like 7-Elevens. And people can go and shop and pick their own food. The program has also brought in more culturally relevant foods like bison or wild rice or blue corn meal. But they've had to fight for these changes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do we know if there's any difference between what the Trump administration is proposing from the food aid that the tribes receive?
GODOY: We don't have a whole lot of details about what these Harvest Boxes the Trump administration, as proposed, have. But what we do know is there will be shelf-stable nonperishables like peanut butter or pastas. The USDA has said that states will have a lot of choice in what they order for SNAP recipients. But, again, we just don't have a lot of details.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR food editor Maria Godoy. Thank you so much.
GODOY: Thank you, Lulu.
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