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Toni Stanger-McLaughlin: Highlighting Tribal Nations and Indigenous Foods during Native American Heritage Month

Posted by Cecilia Hernandez, Designated Federal Officer, USDA Equity Commission in Equity Initiatives
Nov 30, 2023
Toni Stanger-McLaughlin

November is Native American Heritage Month. This is a time to celebrate Native American history and culture while also exploring the ongoing contributions, achievements, and hardships of Native people in the United States. This month’s theme, Indigenous Foods: The Intersection Between Land, Food, and Culture, highlights a challenge that many Native Americans face—food insecurity. USDA recognizes this and the importance of empowering Native Americans by building back sustainable food systems that strengthen food security and increases their control over Native agriculture and food systems.

Indigenous food is culture. It is tradition. It reflects the landscape of Native communities. And, it adds value to USDA’s priorities that are addressing climate change, tackling food and nutrition insecurity, and creating more and better market opportunities that advance rural prosperity. Advancing Tribal food sovereignty initiatives is key to addressing hunger, economic, and health issues in Native communities. USDA is committed to identifying opportunities to empower and strengthen Tribes and Tribal food systems by addressing these kinds of challenges. One example of this is USDA’s Local Food Purchase Assistance program. This program provides funding to Tribes so they can work directly with their own partners to purchase food from local farmers and ranchers and use that for emergency food assistance.

USDA is also addressing food insecurities by creating direct pathways to food. Through the Food Distribution Program for Indian Reservations, USDA has awarded over $10 million to tribal entities over two rounds of self-determination pilot flexibilities that empower tribes to take over part of the food purchases that would be distributed through the program.

Recognizing the need for equitable programs and services to better the lives of Native communities, Toni Stanger-McLaughlin is committed to food sovereignty and further advances this notion in her role as a serving member on USDA’s Equity Commission. “The Equity Commission allows for us who have direct insight into the gaps of underserved communities to bring the issues forward and drive impact by publicly providing recommendations that detail specifics on what’s needed to drive systemic change.” On the Equity Commission, she has introduced recommendations spanning issues of technical assistance to tribal relations, tribal extension programs, and tribal parity to ensure tribes are recognized equitably among other governing entities.

In her full-time role as CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, she works with Tribes focusing on creating plans for ensuring their food systems can withstand future impacts and to build up and expand agricultural infrastructure for the betterment of food production development. Prior to this, Stanger-McLaughlin had the unique opportunity of starting her agricultural career working for USDA within the Office of Civil Rights and then the Office of Tribal Relations. From her working experience, Stanger-McLaughlin brings a sensibility of working across the aisle and with various stakeholders to the deliberation floor of the Commission. “There’s always two sides of a story and an opportunity to learn from both sides during collaboration,” says Stanger-McLaughlin.

Stanger-McLaughlin adds that success for the Equity Commission means that USDA is solidifying and cementing partnerships outside of the Department so that tribes, nonprofits, educational institutions, and others are working together for progress in underserved communities.

As the Equity Commission recently wrapped up its sixth public meeting in Tucson, Arizona and prepares for its final report, Stanger-McLaughlin reflects, “When I was selected to serve as a Commissioner, I made the following statement, ‘I believe this effort will go beyond simply amplifying issues that need to be changed and instead identify actionable solutions to make institutional changes.’” She remarks, “I stand by those words. I do believe our Commission has worked together with our Agriculture and Rural sub-committees, USDA, and the Biden-Harris Administration, in immediate and ongoing actionable solutions that can address issues Native communities face.”

At last month’s public meeting, the Equity Commission voted on the final recommendations to be included in its report to the Department. This follows the Commission’s Interim Report which came out earlier this year and is available in both English (PDF, 1.2 MB) and Spanish (PDF, 1.3 MB). The Final Report will be released in Fiscal Year 2024.

Category/Topic: Equity Initiatives