PINE RIDGE — Hunger is a fact of life for those living on South Dakota’s seven Indian Reservations, where third-world conditions of extreme poverty found a home in America. Many issues contribute to this lingering problem on the reservations, but they all share the same root: severe economic depression.
Per capita income in Oglala Lakota County, comprised solely of Pine Ridge Reservation land, is $6,000-$8,000 per year. More than 60 percent of the reservation’s estimated 20,000-40,000 residents (the latest U.S. census results, taken 16 years ago, hold the population at 15,000; tribal officials report real numbers near 40,000) fall under the federal poverty line, and unemployment rates hover around 80 percent.
Lack of economic opportunity makes obtaining food, especially healthy food, difficult on the reservations. Full grocery stores (i.e. not convenience stores, stores that offer fresh produce and meats) are few and far between in reservation counties. There are only three full grocery stores within all 3,500-square miles of the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Many reservation residents do not have means of reliable transportation; they have to make do with the food that’s available close by. This makes obtaining food and supplies very difficult for those living in more remote areas.
Pine Ridge residents who do have access to the fresh produce and meat provided at the few grocery stores on the reservation face inflated prices, reflecting either the increased cost to deliver to these rural areas or “predatory opportunism,” depending on whom you ask. For example, during a price check in February, a gallon of milk at Wanblee Mart in Wanblee was $4.85; $3.85 at the Sioux Nation Superstore in Pine Ridge; and $2.50 at Walmart in Rapid City. A dozen eggs were $1.35, $2.35, and $2.57, respectively, and a loaf of white bread was $1.99 in Wanblee, $1.59 in Pine Ridge, and $1.38 in Rapid City.
Because of the limited selection and higher prices at the local grocery stores, many reservation residents rely on foods heavy in fat, sugar, and preservatives. This has lead to a racial disparity in prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in South Dakota: 24 percent among the American Indian population; 7.8 percent among Caucasians, according to the Diabetes Coalition of South Dakota. Considering the lack of health care options on the reservations, actual diabetes numbers among Natives are likely much higher.
Hunger and nutrition issues are prevalent among American Indian youth on the reservations as well, some of whom eat their only meals at school, largely going hungry over the weekend. More than 95 percent of K-12 students on Pine Ridge qualify for federal free and reduced lunch programs.
“We have the same hunger issues across the state, but when we get into the reservation communities and counties it’s just exasperated tenfold due to all of the economic issues that they deal with,” Feeding South Dakota CEO Matt Gassen said.
Between 35-40 percent of the roughly 12.5 million pounds of food the non-profit hunger-relief organization distributes annually goes to reservation counties, Gassen said. That’s 3-4 million pounds of food per year for eight of the state’s 66 counties.
And it’s not enough.
Tim Curns, 17-year veteran warehouse manager at Rapid City-based non-profit Native American Heritage Association (NAHA), said there’s more need now on the reservations than ever before.
NAHA purchases several million pounds of food per year from Feeding South Dakota and delivers it, load by load on three refrigerated tractor-trailers, to a warehouse on the Rosebud Reservation, which butts up to the southeast corner of Pine Ridge. From there, volunteers, like Jerome and Theresa High Horse, of Wanblee, distribute the food around their local communities, some 22 communities across the two adjacent reservations.
Occasionally NAHA makes deliveries in Pine Ridge, stopping at community centers or halls in several communities to distribute food to those who show up. Curns said the food is generally distributed through a hierarchy: elderly first, then families with children, and then everyone else.
Curns said when he first began working for NAHA, much of the food the non-profit distributed was canned — not particularly great for meeting nutritional needs. There’s been a marked attempt at obtaining more healthy food for distribution since then.
“On Friday, we got a tractor-trailer load of potatoes and onions and cabbage, and we took that to four different communities,” Curns provided as an example.
But produce is becoming more costly to NAHA. Curns said produce companies recently began including a packaging charge that increases the price of a load by thousands.
“Your budget doesn’t allow those thousands all the time,” he said. “It makes a big difference.”
Curns said NAHA is always in need of donations of both food and everyday life necessities like toiletries, clothing, bedding, and other supplies. He said the best way for concerned individuals to help out it to make donations to Feeding South Dakota.
“I’ll be the first to admit, we have a lot of work to do. We’re a long ways from having that issue solved on the reservations,” Gassen said. “I tell people, if you gave me 20 million pounds of food a year to distribute, I could probably distribute it in just those 12 counties, and I don’t know that I would fix the problem even with that.”