Life is hard enough for many members of Indigenous communities that live on various reservations. COVID-19 has compounded that.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture to help distribute food boxes provided by the USDA to thousands of Indigenous residents during the pandemic.
The project is part of the USDA’s “Farmers to Family Food Box” program.
“The USDA Farmers to Family Food Box program was an answer to many urgent prayers as we watched the COVID-19 infection rate soar on the Navajo Nation and surrounding Native American reservations,” said Elder Todd S. Larkin of the Seventy. “Recently, we have been blessed to extend this effort into Idaho and northern Utah.”
Larkin noted, just Monday, a truck delivered 40,000 pounds of food to an LDS Church meetinghouse on the Fort Hall Reservation in southeastern Idaho. It was the third of three deliveries to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
“I think we have such a great distribution system, and the United States Department of Agriculture recognized that we could probably be very effective in getting this into the homes,” said Ross Hugues, a local pediatric dentist and member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, who serves as president of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake of the LDS Church.
This partnership between the church and USDA is especially valuable because the food is “open to all Native American people” instead of just those from a certain tribe, said Randy’L Teton, public affairs manager for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Teton also functions as the tribes’ COVID-19 public information officer.
“We have 1,300 boxes, each with 30 pounds of food,” Hugues explained. “As each car comes through, they’re asked the question, ‘How many households are you here representing?’ … We have many, many cars that are representing four or five households.”
“We have fresh fruits and vegetables, we have cheese, eggs [and] meat,” he continued. “Just … really the makings for two good wholesome meals, and then some leftovers on top of that for about a family of six.”
Tribes have provided hand sanitizer, wipes and face masks that are also included in the boxes, according to the church.
“This is the wonderful handshake we’ve been able to have with them as they recognize the efficiency [with which] we’ve been able to do it, so they’ve been bringing good sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, masks, to be able to distribute to the Native American people as they come through,” Hugues said.
Monday’s distribution was scheduled to begin at noon, but cars began showing up several hours early. Volunteers loaded the boxes into cars in the two-lane drive-thru event until all the boxes were given away that evening.
Full-time missionaries in the Farmington New Mexico Mission have been using pickup trucks to deliver the food boxes to remote areas of the reservations in the American Southwest.
“Thanks to the USDA and their partners, to date we have received 89 semi-truck loads of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, meat and dairy products, all neatly arranged into 25- and 30-pound family food boxes,” Larkin reported. “That totals over 115,000 boxes of food distributed on Native American reservations since COVID-19 began, about 3.5 million pounds, all delivered to the reservations without cost.”
“Well over 28,000 individuals now have tested positive for COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation alone, which is roughly one in every five people,” he continued.
In Idaho, Teton said the coronavirus has taken the lives of 17 members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, but the infection rate has dropped on the reservation from 70 tribal members testing positive every week to 17 due to weekly screenings that will continue through March.
“During this pandemic everybody is struggling, whether it’s to pay the bills or to purchase food, and those that do work [are] assisting other families just because we’re a small-knit community,” Teton said. “And so, any food boxes [are] definitely going to help a lot of families out.”
Leon Anthony is a Navajo artist who lives in Pocatello.
“I used to sell, I used to travel, and then the shutdown, you know,” Anthony said. “It’s hard for me to make extra money, gas money and stuff like that.”
Anthony, a father of three children and grandfather of six, said it’s not uncommon for Native American grandparents to be caring for their grandchildren.
“At my house, my grandkids would come over and say, ‘Grandpa, I’m hungry,’” he said. “I don’t want them to starve. … I don’t want them to be hungry. So, it helps a lot.”
“We have about 6,000 tribal members on the Fort Hall Reservation,” Teton said. “And I have seen a majority of families coming and taking advantage of the food distribution boxes. I would actually have to say about 1,000 families have successfully been given a food box, whether that’s from a mother taking care of their kids and other family members. So it’s been really an awesome program.”
“It goes without saying that it’s near and dear to my heart as a member of the Church and also as a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to see these two communities come together to serve each other and to be able to bless lives has been close to my heart,” Hugues added.
LDS Church volunteers, including full-time missionaries, have participated in the distribution of these much needed food boxes.