Steve Anderson | September 17, 2015
What Oklahoma’s Political Leaders Can Learn from the Chickasaws
In the previous article in this series, which appeared last month in these pages, we discussed some existing programs which could provide a reliable market for Oklahoma high-value-crop growers, produce better health outcomes for welfare recipients, and substantially reduce fraud in public assistance programs.
It may surprise policymakers to know that some of the program changes we have suggested are already being done quite well in Oklahoma—but not by Oklahoma’s state government.
Many Oklahomans have seen the television commercials the Chickasaw Nation runs about the heritage and continuing success of the tribe and its members. What some may not know is that the Chickasaws run and staff their own social welfare programs. Federally recognized tribes have the right to apply for many of the same federal social welfare programs as the state in lieu of having their tribal members participate in the equivalent state version. The Chickasaws have one of the most comprehensive assistance programs of any tribe. What sets their programs apart from Oklahoma’s state-run programs is how they approach delivering services.
We have noted that while 28 percent of Oklahoma school districts say they are participating in the Farm to School program, only $4.5 million of the $40 million in school lunches served in 2011-2012 consisted of local produce. Why this low penetration rate for Oklahoma farmers into this market?
It starts to make sense when you see some of the approaches to Farm to School taken by public schools. For example, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture has a page of “success stories” on the state’s Farm to School website. One of those success stories is the Pryor Public Schools’ Farm to School program. Here is the story of that success from the school official in charge: “We have implemented school gardens. We have used fresh ingredients from such gardens in the cafeteria. Taste tests have been held with surveys used to identify likeability. We purchased equipment for the cafeterias. We have purchased books about nutrition and farming for the school libraries. We have also purchased nutrition information to hand out to the students to take home to their parents. We have really tried to use this grant to educate the students [and their parents] about eating local healthy foods.”
Nowhere is there mention of putting produce from local or state farmers in front of Oklahoma school children.
Compare that to how the Chickasaw Nation operates its Farm to School Program. The focus of the Chickasaws’ program is on pairing local farmers with area schools to bring locally grown fruits and vegetables to school menus within the Chickasaw Nation’s jurisdiction. The following list of program options shows the approach the Chickasaw tribal leaders use to turn that mission statement into a reality:
- Quarterly meetings for school district food service directors to train in areas of forecasting purchases, menu planning, procurement, and distribution.
- They help set up networks between schools and provide culinary training for cafeteria staff by the chefs from Chickasaw Nation Medical Center’s Okchamali’s Café.
- They provide the conduit for local farmers to share information on fruits and vegetables desired by school cafeterias, extended growing seasons, best practices for growing and harvesting and sanitizing crops for distribution.
- They also provide nutrition education to third and fourth grade students through their “Get Fresh” Nutrition Adventure series.
The Chickasaws seem to have grasped that this program is about local farmers providing healthy produce to local schools. It’s not about buying library books on nutrition and farming. Is it any wonder that, even though the state Agriculture Department recognizes that “with 1,844 schools serving students more than 167,000 breakfasts and over 375,000 lunches every day of the school year the potential size of the market could be substantial,” so little is being purchased from Oklahoma growers?
In previous articles in this series we discussed the potential for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to become a large buyer of Oklahoma high-value crops. The Chickasaw approach to the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), which is the alternative to the state SNAP program, give some guidance as to how the state program could begin to accomplish that goal.
The stated goals of FDPIR—to “promote the health and well-being of the Indian population by raising nutrition levels among low-income households”—are similar to the goals of the state’s SNAP. Benefits are essentially the same, including “nutrition education, food demonstrations, cooking classes, and food packages with a wide variety of food choices, including fresh produce and frozen meats.” How the tribe goes about achieving those goals is what separates the tribe from the SNAP approach.
The Chickasaw model:
Assisting the needy, reducing fraud, and helping Oklahoma growers build a high-value-crop base.
FDPIR provides commodity foods which are available through Food Distribution program grocery stores’ nutrition centers. Participants in the program may shop on the day of their choice at the store’s nutrition centers which carry those items that are qualified for the program. By focusing on delivering those grocery items that are within the Chickasaws’ nutrition center’s guidelines, the tribe can reasonably believe their dollars are putting the right type of food on needy citizens’ tables. Contrast that with the SNAP program, which spends roughly $600 million per year in Oklahoma; the federal agency in charge of oversight, the United States Department of Agriculture, admits it has no idea what type of food items are being purchased.
The problems with SNAP don’t stop with the types of food recipients are purchasing. Those over 60 will probably remember when the food stamp program provided commodities instead of providing debit cards as is the practice today. The ability to use these electronic benefit cards (called EBT’s) in different ways has created an informal economy in which food stamps are turned into cash or used to buy liquor, gasoline, or other items besides food. Even when using some of the lower estimates of the rate of fraud, roughly $3 billion in fraudulent activity takes place annually in the program.
Imagine if Oklahoma turned away from a delivery system which is plagued with fraud and which cannot identify what is being delivered and instead went to a “Chickasaw model.” Oklahoma vegetable and fruit growers and livestock producers could apply to have their products added to the list of approved items and keep part of that half a billion dollars in Oklahoma producers’ pockets—all while ensuring that those Oklahomans needing assistance are receiving high-quality, nutritious food products.
Perhaps we’re seeing movement in that direction. According to a July 7 story in The Oklahoman, Oklahoma has begun providing tokens that represent $1 of money from a recipient’s SNAP account to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. The program is still small, but the provision of Oklahoma-grown fresh produce has expanded from $13,000 and two participating farmers’ markets in 2010 to almost $50,000 and 36 participating farmers’ markets in 2014.
While the size of the program is small, the success stories are promising. Toscamala Ferris uses her tokens at the OSU-OKC Farmers’ Market. She lives on roughly $800 per month from a disability check and says, “I have less than $50 cash left by the time I’m done paying everything. That’s not enough money to eat for a month.” But over the past two years, according to Ms. Ferris, she has lost 130 pounds and is eating healthier thanks in part to the program.
Assisting the needy, reducing fraud, and helping Oklahoma growers build a high-value-crop base should be a plan all Oklahomans can support. Let’s hope those in the state Capitol building are listening.
A Certified Public Accountant with more than 30 years of experience in private practice, he is currently a partner at Anderson, Reichert & Anderson LLC. Anderson spent two years as a budget analyst in the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, and most recently served as budget director for the State of Kansas. At one time he held 17 state teaching certifications ranging from mathematics to physics to business.