Fellows in the News

The Trump administration unleashed a flood of outrage earlier this month after unveiling a proposal to overhaul the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. The plan would replace half the benefits people receive with boxed, nonperishable — i.e. not fresh — foods chosen by the government and not by the people eating them.

Among those horrified at the thought: American Indians who recognized this as the same type of federal food assistance that tribes have historically received, with devastating implications for health.

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The effects of this kind of government commodities-based diet can be seen all around Indian country, says Jernigan, now a University of Oklahoma researcher who studies the impacts of food environments on Native American health. "There's even a name for it — it's called 'commod bod.' That's what we call it because it makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods."

The name, she says, is a joke, but the health implications of this kind of diet are anything but funny. American Indians and Alaska Natives are at least twice as likelyas whites to have Type 2 diabetes, and they have 1 1/2 times the rate of obesity as non-Hispanic whites, according to the government statistics.

Scientists think one explanation for these health differences may lie in what is called the "thrifty gene" theory, which suggests Native Americans have a genetic predisposition to obesity and diabetes. But these diseases didn't become prevalent until tribes adopted a more processed Western diet, notes Elizabeth Hoover, who is of Mohawk and Mi'kmaq ancestry and teaches about indigenous food movements at Brown University.

"A good part of this is not because indigenous bodies are somehow inherently susceptible to diabetes. It's because of these really insufficient diets that are not nutrient-dense, but they're very calorie-dense," says Hoover, who is writing a book about Native American efforts to reclaim their traditional food culture.

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