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Restoring access to Native foods can reduce food insecurity

June 19, 2019
three images side-by-side of harvested camas root, wocus pods, and Yurok eels

A study published this month finds that that Native American households with better access to native foods had significantly higher levels of food security, suggesting that supporting improved access to native foods will result in improved household food security. Pictured here: harvested camas root, wocus pods, and Yurok eels.

A new study co-designed and conducted by UC Berkeley and four Native American tribes shows that 92% of Native American households in the study region suffer from food insecurity. The study, published this month in Food Security, highlights the high rates of food security in Native American households.

Additionally, while evidence suggests that native foods are the most nutritious and culturally appropriate food choices for Native American people and over 99% of households in the region said they want more of these foods, nearly 70% of households surveyed never or rarely get access to the native foods they want. Controlling for poverty, the study found that households with better access to native foods had significantly higher levels of food security, suggesting that supporting improved access to native foods will result in improved household food security.

“We know our efforts to revitalize and care for our food system through traditional land management are critical to the physical and cultural survival of the humans who are part of it,” said Leaf Hillman, director of the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. “This study will support our ability to bring that message to the decision makers who need to hear it.”

Study results indicate that increased access to native foods and support for cultural institutions including traditional knowledge and food sharing are key to solutions for food insecurity in Native American communities. “How food security is framed, and by whom, shapes the interventions or solutions that are proposed,” said Jennifer Sowerwine, a UC Berkeley assistant Cooperative Extension specialist. “Our research suggests that current measures of and solutions to food insecurity in the United States need to be more culturally relevant to effectively assess and address chronic food insecurity in Native American communities.”

Native Americans suffer from the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, and diet-related disease in the United States, yet data on Native American communities is often under-reported in national data collection efforts due to their relatively small population size. This means reliable data on food systems and food security in Native American communities are scarce, and community-based recommendations and solutions almost non-existent in the United States.

In response, the group—including Sowerwine, Karuk Tribe member Lisa Hillman, UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellows Megan Mucioki and Dan Sarna-Wojcicki, and additional research partners from the Yurok, Karuk, and Klamath Tribes—adapted the USDA Food Security Assessment Toolkit to focus on Native American communities and food systems in the Klamath River Basin. Their comprehensive assessment of the effects of that adaptation, conducted from 2014-2018, included 711 surveys completed by Native American households from the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa and Klamath Tribes, 115 interviews with cultural practitioners and food system stakeholders, and 20 focus groups with tribal members or descendants.

Research results found that in spite of countless barriers, Native American tribes in the Klamath Basin—a region spanning four tribes’ ancestral territories, multiple counties and two states—seasonally harvest, consume, and store a diversity of aquatic and terrestrial native foods including salmon, acorns, and deer. Yet significant barriers such as restrictive laws and habitat degradation limit  availability and quality of these foods.

Study participants strongly expressed the desire for strengthened tribal governance of Native lands and stewardship of cultural resources to increase access to native foods, as well as  increased food self-reliance and support for home food production. Specific community-generated solutions also include tribe-led workshops on native food gathering, preparation, and preservation; removing legal barriers to hunt, fish and gather; restoring traditional rights to hunt, fish and gather on tribal ancestral lands; providing culturally relevant education and employment opportunities to tribal members; and increased funding for native foods programs.

“Partnering with tribal community members in the research makes the research stronger, and that is especially true in this unique food security assessment,” said Sowerwine. “With the study design grounded in nearly a decade of relationship-building and respectful engagement with our tribal partners, we are confident that our results reflect their priority questions and concerns while contributing valuable new information to the field of indigenous food systems.”

This research was conducted as part of a $4 million, five-year Tribal Food Security Project funded by USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture-Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Food Security Grant #2012-68004-20018. For full results and recommendations from the project team, visit the Karuk-UC Berkeley Collaborative’s website.

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