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For rural Native communities, affordable groceries can be hours away

Emergency assistance alone can’t fix food inaccessibility for communities like the Hoh Tribe on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

Dawn's eyes in the rearview mirror

Dawn Gomez makes the 60-mile drive from Forks to Port Angeles to do her grocery shopping on March 30, 2019. She serves as the Tribal Chairman and Community Health Representative for the Hoh tribe. Gomez recently moved off of the reservation to the nearby town of Forks for health reasons, but she says the local grocery store in Forks is not affordable, so she makes the 120-mile round trip to do her grocery shopping.

On grocery days, Dawn Gomez’s checklist goes like this: Check the fridge. Leave her dogs with her dad. Swing by her husband’s workplace to see what he needs. Pick up her son. And finally, drive to the nearest Walmart in Port Angeles, which is an hour and a half from her home near Forks, and then to the nearby Costco in Sequim.

She packs freezer bags in the car to keep frozen goods from melting in the heat of her trunk. On the return trip, her son sometimes sleeps in the backseat, so she cranks up a heavy-metal and punk radio station to stay awake. This is actually an improvement for her: When she still lived on her tribe’s reservation, the trip was an hour longer. 

For Gomez and other citizens of the Hoh Tribe, hours-long trips to grocery stores are routine. The tribe, which has a little over 300 citizens, sits by the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula, near Olympic National Park. Gomez lived on the reservation until late 2018, when she moved to Forks for health-related reasons. Her eldest son still lives on the reservation next door to Gomez’s mother.

During the week, Gomez drives an hour south of her home to the reservation for work, where she’s the tribe’s community health representative and recently elected Tribal Chair. 

“If I mention to anyone that I go grocery shopping, they’ll ask for something too and send money,” she says. She often picks things up for family members who still live on the reservation, like her mother. 

In the fall and winter, power outages are frequent and often ruin stored frozen food. “There was one year where the power was out in Hoh River for 10 days, 12 days," Gomez says. “That was really hard.”

An outsider’s first instinct might be to ask why Gomez can’t run up to Forks to get groceries at Thriftway, the closest grocery store to the reservation. But the prices are often twice as expensive as those at the nearest Walmart: On the day of Gomez’s grocery trip, bananas were $1.09 a pound at Thriftway vs. 59 cents a pound at Walmart. A box of cereal at Thriftway costs between $4 and $5; Gomez can buy a bag of cereal triple its size for the same cost at Walmart. 

Dawn and her son in a grocery isle

Dawn Gomez often brings her 25-year-old son, Marcelino Tegoseak, shopping with her because she says the long shopping days are hard on her physically. Gomez says she makes the grocery trip every two weeks. 

Dawn Gomez often brings her 25-year-old son, Marcelino Tegoseak, shopping with her because she says the long shopping days are hard on her physically. Gomez says she makes the grocery trip every two weeks. 

Like many tribes on the peninsula, residents on the Hoh reservation have long dealt with its distance from grocery stores. In general, rural areas with small populations throughout the country tend to lack reliable access to them. State legislators have attempted to untangle the issues surrounding food access in Washington through food pantries and banks, which have been a staple in the system that seeks to help rural communities get the food they need.

But emergency assistance can’t fix food inaccessibility on its own. 

A recent report from the Washington Department of Agriculture shows that last year tribal members made over 35,000 visits to food pantries, an increase of 18%. WSDA Food Assistance Program Manager Kim Eads describes these visits as supplemental, as visitors received about 7.6 pounds of food per visit, “so it still does not meet all the needs.”

While the report does not identify the reasons for the increase, Eads says that some might be due to the increasing elder population in tribes and possibly an increasing cost of living in areas where they reside. As a whole, she says, the problems rural tribes face are similar to those of other small, rural populations.   

“Some of our tribal communities are still in very rural areas, and it’s hard to make up [the cost if] you can’t get an alternate source of income,” Eads says. 

And with unreliable food storage and distance from grocery stores, Gomez says it’s more important than ever that  Hoh Indian Reservation residents have a reliable place to get and keep their food.

Dawn loads freezer bags with food

In the Port Angeles Walmart parking lot, Dawn Gomez packs her eggs in to insulated cooler bags. She says she packs all of her fresh and frozen groceries in to the bags so they don't spoil on the long drive home.

In the Port Angeles Walmart parking lot, Dawn Gomez packs her eggs in to insulated cooler bags. She says she packs all of her fresh and frozen groceries in to the bags so they don't spoil on the long drive home.


In addition to local food banks or pantries, some residents on tribal reservations on the peninsula get food assistance through a program administered by Small Tribes of Western Washington (STOWW), which falls under the federal Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations program. It’s an emergency food-distribution program started in the ’60s to aid tribes that were hours away from their closest grocery store; it operates as an alternative to the federal food-voucher program SNAP and serves anyone who lives on a reservation. Gomez says her income now is too high to receive assistance from this program, but she says she did when she was a young adult. She says that other tribal members often financially rely on state or federal assistance, per capita payments or fishing.

STOWW Director Benita Lewis says that it’s one of the oldest federal emergency food programs, operating as a SNAP alternative that delivers USDA foods via truck directly to individuals. 

Even with the state’s awareness, Gomez says getting the food home isn’t always enough. You also have to find a place to store it. 

Gomez’s problem reflects the issues that legislators and advocates have long struggled to solve: reliably delivering fresh food to communities in need and properly storing it once it’s arrived. Ideally, food banks and pantries would receive shipments that include fresh, nutritious foods like dairy and produce and be able to store it adequately for the people who need it. If it’s not enough to serve a community, getting access to more fresh food seems like the logical next step.

But advocates say that there’s not always enough space for more. Christina Wong, Northwest Harvest’s director of public policy and advocacy, says that her organization has had to seek extra warehouse space to hold on to products that need to be frozen or refrigerated. 

“Often, food pantries are these small, volunteer-run programs that don’t even have a fridge in place,” she says. “So there’s a bottleneck for having a place to safely store [fresh food] until the next distribution day.”

Wong says the problem has gotten worse. Since last year, ongoing trade disputes and tariffs under the Trump administration have created an even bigger surplus. Food that consequently couldn’t be sold to foreign markets is then bought by the USDA; Wong says that the USDA’s purchases have increased over 400% as a result, funneling more and more food into the emergency food system. Emergency food distributors expect another influx of food after the passage of Washington’s 2019 food-waste reduction bill. Since the bill wants to rescue more food from landfills and divert that into emergency food systems, Wong says that distributors have to build capacity — which means purchasing more storage spaces like freezers or refrigerators in preparation.

Marcelino unlopads the truck bed

Marcelino Tegoseak, Dawn Gomez’s son, helps unload the truck bed full of groceries. Gomez uses the truck for trips so she can fit all of the groceries her family needs to last until the next 120-mile trip. “It's exhausting," she says. 

Marcelino Tegoseak, Dawn Gomez’s son, helps unload the truck bed full of groceries. Gomez uses the truck for trips so she can fit all of the groceries her family needs to last until the next 120-mile trip. “It's exhausting," she says. 

It’s a tricky balance: More food should theoretically aid communities, but lacking storage means efforts to do so lead to waste. 

"Ultimately, we're really grateful for the products that we're receiving,” Wong says. “We just want to make sure it's going out to people in need. You don't want to add to those costs for small, volunteer-driven frontline programs if there’s something as simple on the back end as adding infrastructure and capacity."

Northwest Harvest and other member organizations of the AntiHunger and Nutrition Coalition hope to convince legislators to introduce into this year’s state budget funding for grants that would help food banks and pantries add capacity for refrigerators and freezers. Other similar proposed initiatives include one seeking to increase funds for fresh fruits and vegetables for SNAP and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) families and another that would help WIC families purchase local food at farmers markets. 

Meanwhile, Washington’s Department of Agriculture has partnered with some communities to improve access to fresh food. Eads points to the Lummi Nation as one example of a success story: For the past two years, the Lummi Nation has been the first and only tribe to be a lead contractor with the state’s supplemental food commodity program. That means they have a direct contract with the DOA to administer the program themselves; before, their food pantry relied on outside suppliers like Bellingham Food Bank or the Whatcom Foundation. This agency and ownership makes it easier to respond to unique local pressure points. Eads says that while tribal seniors are a particularly vulnerable population within tribes that have increased in number and need, the Lummi Nation has been able to respond.

Elaine Lane, who runs the Lummi program, says that along with the over 100 households that they service monthly, they’re able to serve 40 households with homebound residents — often seniors and disabled people — on a weekly basis. 

”It’s very important for us to provide for our elders,” Lane says. 

The Lummi Nation also received grant funding from the USDA to expand their food-storage warehouse. It’s a necessary addition that Lane says will help the tribe “in achieving food sovereignty — securing food for the people.”

Dawn and her son hug

Dawn Gomez hugs her son, Marcelino Tegoseak, before dropping him off at his home after their grocery shopping trip.

Dawn Gomez hugs her son, Marcelino Tegoseak, before dropping him off at his home after their grocery shopping trip.


When Gomez drives up to her home after her grocery trip, her two dogs run out to greet her, flanking the sides of her car and darting around her feet while she slips out. Her father hustles out of the house to help unpack the trunk. Later her husband Marcelino will cook those groceries as pot roasts or tacos. 

Gomez says that while the Hoh Tribe has no solid plans, they’re discussing their options for responding to their food-access issues. They already have a small community garden by the Hoh River, but it’s used by only a few tribal citizens. And she’d also like to see a bus that could take residents to grocery stores weekly. Lastly, she’s hoping to purchase a couple of industrial freezers that operate with a backup generator, she says, for when the power goes out in the winter. They could stock up on bread and make sandwiches when there’s nothing else to eat.

But solutions take time, and organizing around them is difficult, as many staff members like herself work more than one job for the tribe.

“We have a lot of people, a lot of staff that wear many hats,” she says. “We’re trying to fill positions so that our staff isn’t spread too thin."

For small tribes like the Hoh, funding is a constant concern. Regular upkeep on the reservation usually eats up any tribal surplus from funding they receive via contracts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Funding new ventures usually comes down to scoring grants.

“When we try to look for funding, the majority of the time, there’s a match we have to do,” she says. “It’s very difficult when we don’t have a million-dollar match or something for a grant we’d like to apply for — we don’t have a casino. We have permits for slot machines, but that only brings in so much each month.” 

Gomez says that when she left her home by the Hoh River for Forks, another tribal citizen who was living in Tacoma asked if he could move into her place on the Hoh Reservation. He’d grown up there, but moved to Tacoma for a job and the access to daily necessities. But even after finding an easier life elsewhere, he wanted to come back. 

“That’s where our people, our roots, our family, our home is,” Gomez says. “That’s why people don’t want to leave.”

 

Dawn putting away grocers in her kitchen

Dawn Gomez brings in her groceries from the car in to her Forks home. She lives with her husband, father, and daughter, and though her son Marcelino Tegoseak doesn't live with her, she still will help him with his groceries. Since grocery shopping takes up most of the day, she can only go on weekends, so she has to buy enough groceries to last for two weeks. She says her grocery bill is normally between $300-$400.

Dawn Gomez brings in her groceries from the car in to her Forks home. She lives with her husband, father, and daughter, and though her son Marcelino Tegoseak doesn't live with her, she still will help him with his groceries. Since grocery shopping takes up most of the day, she can only go on weekends, so she has to buy enough groceries to last for two weeks. She says her grocery bill is normally between $300-$400.


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