Skip to content

Heinrich, Leger Fernández Introduce Legislation To Strengthen Tribal Food Sovereignty, Increase Access To Free School Meals For Native Children

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) introduced the Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act to promote Tribal food sovereignty and make it easier for Native children to access free meals at school. 

“We owe it to every child to provide equitable access to the kind of nutritious foods that promote lifelong health and wellbeing,” said Heinrich. “Far too many Tribal communities across the country currently lack the resources necessary to ensure Native children have consistent access to healthy meals. This legislation will help mitigate the economic, health, and food challenges that Tribes face while promoting efforts to strengthen and protect Indigenous food systems.”

“Our kids should never have to worry about where their next meal will come from. Unfortunately, too many Indigenous children continue to lack access to affordable and nutritious meals. This bill will make sure that Indigenous students across the country are eligible to receive free school meals. It strengthens Tribal sovereignty by allowing Tribal Nations to authorize their own nutrition programs and include culturally appropriate foods, such as the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash” said Leger Fernández.“For far too long, the United States undermined Tribal nutrition by providing Native families the least nutritious foods. This bill makes sure Tribal nations have food sovereignty and remedy this historical mistreatment.” 

Native American populations are more likely to experience poverty, food scarcity and nutrition-related health conditions. One in four Native Americans experience food insecurity, compared to one in eight Americans overall. In addition to this, nearly half of individuals living in Tribal areas have incomes at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.

The Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act seeks to address this inequity by allowing Tribes to ensure children within their communities have consistent access to a variety of nutritious meal options, including local Indigenous foods. 

The bill establishes a two-year pilot program through the USDA, awarding funds to 10 Tribal entities that will directly administer the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program. Eligible entities include Indian Tribes or Tribal organizations, a consortium of Indian Tribes, or a partnership between an Indian Tribe or Tribal organization and a State or local education agency.

The Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act also makes Native children categorically eligible for free school meals and allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to adjust reimbursement rates for Bureau-funded schools and schools on or near a reservation. 

U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) is a cosponsor of the bill in the U.S. Senate. Senator Luján previously co-led the bill when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the House, the bill is co-led by U.S. Representatives Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and Ruben Gallego. (D-Ariz.).

“For too long, communities on Tribal lands have faced some of the highest rates of food insecurity—impacting Native children at a time when food and nutrition is vital for their health and well-being,” said Luján, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Having previously co-led this effort in the House, I’m proud to continue fighting to expand access to healthy meals for students in Native communities while protecting Tribal sovereignty.” 

“School meals play a vital role in helping to address hunger and food insecurity and helping to keep our kids healthy and strong. Ensuring our Tribes and Pueblos can provide school meals is critical to the well-being of our communities and I am proud to co-sponsor the Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act with Chairwoman Leger Fernández in the House,”said Stansbury, a member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. “In the New Mexico State Legislature I was proud to lead legislation with our Governor and Representative Willie Madrid to extend school meals to thousands of New Mexico kids and have seen firsthand the impacts these programs have on our kids and communities. This bill will enable Tribes and Pueblos to extend school meal programs and honor the sovereignty, needs, and food traditions of our tribal communities.” 

“Every child in America deserves to have a free, nutritious breakfast and lunch as part of their school day,” said McGovern. “I’ve visited Tribal communities and seen firsthand the inequities and injustices of our current food system. That’s why I’m grateful to my colleagues, Senator Heinrich and Representative Leger Fernández, for introducing the Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act to help fight high rates of food insecurity among Tribal families and ensure Native children have access to free meals at school. We must continue fighting for a hunger free America where no child wakes up not knowing when their next meal will be.”

“Every child in our country should have access to affordable and nutritious food, regardless of their background or where they live,” said Gallego. “Unfortunately, Native families and their children often still face too many barriers to accessing school lunch programs which are a lifeline for so many. This bill will cut through the red tape to make every Native child automatically eligible for free school meals, ensuring every student in Indian Country can focus on learning, and not on if they have lunch the next day. It also bolsters Tribal sovereignty by expanding opportunities for Tribes to administer their own culturally responsive nutrition programs. I’m proud to join my Senate colleagues in this effort that will uplift so many Native children in Arizona and across the country.”

The Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act has received the support of the National Congress of American Indians and New Mexico Appleseed.

"The Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act would ensure American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth have access to financially sustainable, nutritious meals and that schools serving AI/AN students have the funding they need to adequately feed their children. This Act also provides substantial steps towards developing culturally relevant school nutrition programs and will create a pilot program for 10 tribal entities to directly implement school nutrition programs. We applaud Senator Heinrich for his leadership on this issue and continued support for providing the necessary tools for our AI/AN students and food producers,” said National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp. 

“Native Americans have some of the highest rates of food insecurity ever recorded. The TNIA envisions sovereign tribal nations with adequate resources to feed their children culturally relevant and healthy food,” said New Mexico Appleseed Executive Director Jennifer Ramos. 

“Taos Pueblos Education & Training Division receives CACFP reimbursements for the Taos Pueblo Head Start and Early Head Start program. As a recipient of this program we have experienced many challenges and barriers with the various requirements of the program. One of the major challenges are that there is not enough flexibility to include our traditional foods and locally sourced ingredients. Food is a major component of culture and through this program we are not able to really engage our students in the rich cultural teachings that could be happening through food. Among the many barriers that we have experienced including the amount of paperwork that is required, is not fully being able to administer our own program. Many tribes administer grants directly with the Federal Government and by not allowing us to directly administer our own programs is to not acknowledge our sovereignty,” said Taos Pueblo Education & Training Division Director Bettina Sandoval.

The Senate version of the Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act can be found here. The House version is available here.