“Indian Country Food Price Index” Shows Generally Higher Costs

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Earlier in July, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) – as part of its work to combat food insecurity, eliminate “food deserts” in Native American communities, and support economic and business development – released a new report that finds Native consumers in or near reservation communities generally have to spend more on food products than the national average, despite the fact that incomes are usually much lower in these communities while food access is, largely, much more difficult due to distance and transportation issues.

The report, titled Indian Country Food Price Index: Exploring Variation in Food Pricing Across Native Communities, is referred to as a working paper because First Nations plans to lengthen the time frame and broaden the scope of the price-sampling activities over the next year.

“Most American Indian reservations are located in what the U.S. Agriculture Department calls ‘food deserts’ where access to retail outlets and fresh and healthy foods is difficult,” noted A-dae Romero-Briones, First Nations’ Associate Director of Research & Policy for Native Agriculture. “Naturally, that is a result of many factors including rurality, lack of sufficient demand to support retail outlets, and trends in national food-distribution systems that favor large or urban retail outlets. Plus, in many Native communities, historical government policies aimed to disrupt, alter and even eliminate local food production that once sustained Native communities, resulting in increased dependency on new food and retail systems.”

Romero-Briones emphasized that the combination of higher-than-average food prices, lower-than-average incomes and persistently difficult access has created a “toxic stew of problems” for many Native Americans – nutritionally and financially. “Even a few extra cents or a few extra dollars spent on food can have a big effect on strapped Native families in many of these chronically impoverished communities, in addition to the negative health outcomes associated with a lack of nutritious, fresh and healthy foods,” she said.

For the report, First Nations created a hypothetical basket of food commodities including milk, bread, eggs, apples, tomatoes, coffee, ground beef and even Cheetos®. Community partners collected monthly prices on goods and recorded them in an online database. These were then compared against the national average prices listed in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although generated from a small sample and during a short timeframe, the data highlight a few notable trends, including that food prices in Native communities, on average, are higher than in urban areas, and there is food-price volatility by month in Native communities.

“Food price is a major economic factor for households in low-income communities, so this type of reporting is essential in order to find solutions,” Romero-Briones said. “Higher food prices have implications for household income, poverty rates and the quality of life for Indian Country residents. And while these factors make food pricing and budgeting exponentially more important in Native communities, they also highlight an opportunity for tribal governments and other Native entrepreneurs. Given that local food economies capture large portions of community income, there is opportunity for Native-owned business creation around the local food economy, and that money can recirculate in and have a beneficial multiplier effect on the community.”

Native Americans in or near reservation communities who are interested in participating in the larger follow-up study are encouraged to watch for information soon about the “Call for Participants” or they can email info@firstnations.org using the subject line “Food Price Study.” Please include your full name, address, phone number, tribal affiliation, and a specific description of the town, area or region from which you might be able to report prices. Participants will be paid $50 per month over the expected 12-month duration of the project.

The full report is available as a free download from the First Nations online Knowledge Center at http://www.firstnations.org/knowledge-center. (Note: You may have to create a free account if you don’t already have one in order to download the report.)

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