Unseen Realities: How Data and Place Shapes Food Access and Security for Urban American Indians/Alaska Natives

Food security among American Indian/Alaska Native families living in urban areas (urban AI/AN) is often overlooked, as many mistakenly believe that AI/AN people live predominantly on reservation lands. Despite residing in areas traditionally associated with lower food insecurity rates, evidence suggests urban AI/AN people may experience greater food insecurity than AI/AN people living in rural areas or on reservation. To address food insecurity, it’s critical to ensure the experiences of urban AI/AN people are not erased and highlight Native knowledge to tailor resources to meet these families’ needs.

The birth of urban Indian communities

There is a deep and expansive historical context that’s shaped Native communities’ access to resources that we will only narrowly review here. All of northern America represents Native ancestral homelands that were stolen through many US policies, such as the 1851 Indian Appropriations Act. Federal troops forcibly removed and relocated many Native communities to smaller, often unfamiliar portions of land known as reservations, which disrupted access to their historic food sources and constricted their ability to fish, hunt, and procure food. To address this dislocation and resulting food insecurity, the federal government has provided rations since the 1800s, relying on shelf stable and highly processed foods, which has prompted a slew of health issues and created a situation of food insecurity on reservations (PDF).

In 1952, the federal government created the Urban Relocation Program, which encouraged 100,000 AI/AN people to move off reservations and into cities for a better life and a shot at economic mobility. With the goal of claiming vacated reservation lands and continuing the institutional and intergenerational attempts of cultural assimilation, the program promised supports for relocated AI/AN people, including jobs and affordable housing. Today, more than 70 percent (PDF) of AI/AN people live in urban areas with 8 percent at the start of the program.

The program was disastrous for Native families, with one federal commissioner later calling the relocation program “an underfunded, ill-conceived program… essentially a one-way ticket from rural to urban poverty.” The program has had many unintended consequences, among them the exacerbation of food insecurity. Many relocated people were disconnected from their families and culture, often unemployed and too poor to return to their homes.

From a national perspective, it’s clear Native communities disproportionally experience harms that affect food security. AI/AN communities are burdened with almost double the national poverty rate, which limits Native families’ opportunities to get the resources and mobility to meet their food needs regularly. While estimates are varied, national food insecurity estimates for AI/AN people are as high as 56 percent. This lack of amount and quality of food significantly increases the chances of poor health outcomes associated with food insecurity, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer, as well as poor psychological and behavioral health.

Missing local-level data on food access of urban AI/AN is stunting policy action

Yet a large share of research on AI/AN food insecurity groups all Native populations together or focuses exclusively on households living on reservation. This fails to reflect the unique set of challenges and supports for food security and access experienced by Native people living in urban areas. Many local-level metrics are missing or aren’t reported, rendering invisible the vital information for tribal leaders, researchers, and policymakers to make informed decisions about this subset of Native peoples.

Even at the federal level, official food insecurity rates published by the US Department of Agriculture do not differentiate AI/AN groups and other races and ethnicities, let alone tribal affiliations. Given research indicating that AI/AN households experience significantly higher rates of food insecurity than other races and ethnicities, lumping together this population with other races and ethnicities inaccurately reflects food security challenges faced by urban AI/AN households.

Further, few localities collect socioeconomic and health data on Native people, as they comprise a smaller share of cities’ overall populations. However, cities such as Anchorage, Alaska; Phoenix, Arizona; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Los Angeles, California; and New York City, New York, have significant populations of AI/AN residents. Not collecting, analyzing, or presenting data on this population erases the distinction between urban AI/AN people and those on reservations, resulting in uninformed and historically harmful practices and policies, continuing a cycle of data violence.

Addressing data violence to strengthen policies to lessen food insecurity and health disparities

The data gap provides an opportunity for researchers and policy makers to improve data collection, analysis, and responsiveness. Many Native scholars and researchers are already creating and advocating for appropriate best practices, a few of which are highlighted below.

  • Honor data sovereignty: Advocating for more data on food insecurity for urban AI/AN peoples must be done respectfully and responsibly. Embracing data sovereignty involves upholding AI/AN communities’ control over the collection, storage, and use of their data. This requires decolonizing data and advocating for policies that recognize and respect Natives’ rights to manage and govern their own information. Establishing clear guidelines and frameworks that ensure collaborative and respectful data practices in collecting food security data are crucial in fostering trust and inclusivity. Native scholars are also advocating for better research methods and inclusive reporting for researchers to do a better job in generating and analyzing already available data.
  • Effective research prioritizes community engagement: Authentic community engagement is pivotal in dismantling data violence and truly understanding the food insecurity needs of urban AI/AN peoples. Researchers and policymakers must actively center AI/AN communities in decisionmaking processes related to data collection, analysis, and use. This engagement needs to be more than tokenistic, with a commitment to understanding and incorporating community needs, perspectives, and values. Building partnerships based on trust and shared goals will result in more accurate and relevant data to inform decisionmaking.
  • Adopt Two-Eyed Seeing for colearning: Effectively working with Native communities to address food needs requires bringing together ideologies. Adopting a Two-Eyed Seeing approach involves integrating Native knowledge alongside mainstream research methods. This not only enriches the research process but also ensures a holistic understanding of the complexities at play. By promoting the coexistence of Native and Western insights, we can bridge gaps in understanding of the problem and create more comprehensive solutions.
  • Contextualize data and policymaking within historical treatment: It’s imperative to recognize and address the historical context that has shaped data and social policymaking affecting Native communities. Historical events continue to have a profound impact on the accuracy and completeness of data, including food access. Research and policymaking efforts need to reflect Indigenous allyship (PDF) and a nuanced understanding of this context, acknowledging and rectifying the injustices of the past to build a more equitable future.