A new program being tested in South Dakota aims to help provide local ground bison meat for tribal communities, supporting Native ranchers in the process.
Native Americans have some of the highest rates of food insecurity and hunger in the country, according to Feeding America, a non-profit nationwide network of food banks, food pantries, and local meal programs.
Since many tribal communities are geographically isolated, it can be a very long drive to the nearest grocery store. Convenience stores or gas stations are often the only local sources of food, so healthy options may be limited and processed foods are a more realistic option.
A new pilot program from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) aims to help provide local ground bison meat for tribal communities through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).
Three tribal nations located in South Dakota are participating in the project: the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
The pilot will look at changes to how USDA purchases bison, buying locally, and distributing it to tribal communities.
“USDA recognizes the role its purchasing power can play in providing access for smaller, local, and tribal producers,” USDA officials said. “We’re pleased to take this step forward toward offering locally raised bison directly to the tribal communities where those herds are located.”
Contracts for meat purchases have been awarded to four tribal and local producers.
According to USDA, there’s another reason for purchasing Native-raised bison. Tribal leaders indicated that USDA purchase specifications do not align with how tribal and other small- and mid-sized producers operate.
“This pilot responds to feedback from across Indian Country and from small producers by aligning purchase timeframes with principles of infrequent animal handling, traditional field harvests following a nature-based purchasing calendar, and allowing either USDA or state inspection.”
The buffalo raised by Ron Brownotter are field harvested, “right there while they’re chewing grass looking at you,” he said.
“We don’t put them in trailers. We don’t haul them two hours down the road where they’re excited, stressed out, and head butting each other with their horns and getting bruised just to get killed somewhere else. That activity is being put into the meat that you’re going to eat.”
Once the animal is harvested, there is more for Brownotter to do. “The buffalo was everything to us and still is. It kept us alive all those centuries and we have that relationship with the animal,” he said.
“An elder told me, when you kill a buffalo, you say a prayer and then you put sage in the mouth that plant we use in our ceremonies so that’s what I do. I’m going to supply this contract by doing that. I say a prayer and thank the buffalo. He’s going to feed families. Food sovereignty is important for us, and people want to eat good quality food.”
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) is administered by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service and provides nutritious domestic USDA Foods purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service along with administrative funding to participating tribes and state agencies.
These foods are then distributed to FDPIR participants, which include income-eligible households on Indian reservations or Native American households residing in designated areas near reservations to help fight food and nutrition insecurity.