Population Health

January 20, 2022

Survey shows disproportionate food insecurities in Washington tribal communities

Image of lettuce growing on a farmFood insecurity and barriers are prevalent issues tribal communities have long faced due to the history of colonization and removal of tribal people from their native lands. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges due to disproportionate economic effects and resource distribution for these communities.

The recently concluded Washington State Tribal Food Project (WATRIBAL) seeks to minimize these barriers by highlighting the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food disparities and food sovereignty among American Indian/Alaska Native communities in Washington state.

The project involved qualitative interviews among nine native tribes to gain responses on employment, income, food assistance, and food insecurity. They received 196 responses over the two months of conducting the survey and used these responses to assess relevant barriers to food access these communities are facing in light of the pandemic.

Responses indicated an overall increase in food insecurity throughout the months of the pandemic as well as both a steep increase in the usage of food assistance programs and the existence of barriers to accessing these food assistance programs, such as distance and stress around applying. High levels of unemployment as a result of the pandemic also disrupted the use of traditional food and gatherings in these communities. As they face these disparities and challenges, survey participants demonstrated a collective trust in their tribal community leaders and a willingness to support and share with one another, which was a positive outcome of the survey responses.

The WATRIBAL team used these findings to develop instruments that help measure constructs of food security and to provide several suggestions for addressing barriers that can be implemented in the short and long term. Their recommendations primarily aim to address and improve the barriers to food assistance programs that many community members voiced, increase access to traditional foods and provide educational materials to increase future community resilience. The goal is for trusted tribal leaders to use these suggestions as a template for advocacy and change to food security and wellbeing in their communities.

The WATRIBAL team not only hopes that their findings contribute to the short-term responses of tribal communities to ensure greater food security, but that additional research and support for the future of these communities prove to be long-term outcomes of this project.

“We’re proud of the work our team did in support of Washington tribal communities, and we are looking forward to expanding this work and extending our relationship with NWTEC,” said Jennifer Otten, food systems director and associate professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “The next iteration of this research, led by NWTEC, will expand the scope to include interested Oregon and Idaho tribes, and will reach out to Washington tribes again to understand how food access and security have changed over the course of the pandemic. The goal is to support tribal leaders, tribal communities and others across the PNW with information in support of improving food access and food security.”

WATRIBAL was funded by a UW Population Health Initiative Population Health Equity Research Grant. The final WATRIBAL report can be accessed online to learn more.