Access to Food Assistance Programs Among Northern Cheyenne Families

Year: 2002

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Davis, Judith, Rita Hiwalker, Carol Ward, and Eric Dahlin

Institution: Dull Knife Memorial College

Project Contact:
Judith Davis, Dean of Academic Affairs
Dull Knife Memorial College
Box 98, 1 College Drive
Lame Deer, MT 59043
Phone: 406-477-6215, X-124


Federal food assistance programs are an integral part of the social safety net on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana. In 2000, almost half of Northern Cheyenne families with children lived in poverty, and in 2002, the unemployment rate for the Northern Cheyenne Nation was 71 percent. Previous research has shown that about one-third of Northern Cheyenne Reservation residents use food stamps and one-third receive USDA commodities through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).7 This study examined the use of food assistance by two population groups that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse economic conditions on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation: seasonal workers and families in which the adults face high barriers to employment.

The authors used administrative data to document changes in the use of Federal food and cash assistance since the mid-1990s in Rosebud County, MT, where much of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is located. In addition, the authors interviewed 32 reservation residents who are either seasonal workers or individuals who face high barriers to employment. The interviews provided detailed accounts of individual and family experiences with the use of Federal food assistance programs. The authors compared the information collected from seasonal workers with data they had collected from other reservation residents in an earlier study.

The study found that the average monthly number of food stamp recipients fell almost 30 percent between 1996 and 2000 and then rose 8 percent between 2000 and 2001. The decline in the use of food assistance is particularly striking because economic conditions for the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, unlike for most of the rest of the country, did not improve during the 1990s. The number of households that received commodities through the FDPIR increased slightly between July 1998 and July 1999. However, the most recent program data show that the average number of households receiving commodities decreased almost 16 percent between 2000 and 2002.

Most survey respondents are seasonal workers, who most often cited fire-fighting as their seasonal job. Seasonal workers also reported doing construction work, selling firewood, babysitting, cleaning houses, or working at local schools as a school aide, cook, or bus driver. The single-parent families in the survey are much more aware of the food assistance programs that may be available to them than other types of families. Single-parent families with children are most likely to be eligible for and receive cash assistance, and their participation in the cash assistance program is likely to make them more aware of other Federal assistance programs.

The seasonal workers who do access food assistance programs reported that the FSP and FDPIR are important in helping them meet their food needs. FSP participants appreciate the flexibility that they have to purchase the kinds of food that they want but noted that the high food prices on the reservation make it difficult to stretch their food stamp benefits. Commodity recipients like the amount and kinds of foods they receive. Many reported that the monthly commodity package provides them with more food than they could buy with food stamps and that the application process for FDPIR is simpler than for the FSP. A number of seasonal workers also reported difficulty in establishing their eligibility for the FSP when their employment ends. However, whether this is due to actual eligibility restrictions or to misinformation about the program’s eligibility requirements is not clear.

The authors collected information that allowed them to assess the level of food insecurity, stress, and health problems among survey respondents. They found that seasonal workers experience levels of food insecurity and nutritional risk that are almost as high as those experienced by the unemployed. Seasonal workers reported higher levels of stress than the unemployed. While seasonal workers reported that they are able to provide for the needs of their families during the part of the year that they are employed, they do not consider the income they receive to be sufficient to last the remainder of the year. The limitations of the local economy prevent most seasonal workers from finding alternative employment.

The cultural norm on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is to share food and help family members when they are in need. However, because poverty and unemployment rates are so high, this dependence on extended family stretches the resources of most families very thin. Therefore, Federal food assistance programs represent an important source of support for these families.