Ross Hugues, who serves as president of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake, and other Church volunteers distribute food boxes to Native Americans representing various tribes who live on the Fort Hall Reservation and in surrounding communities in southeastern Idaho, Monday, February 1, 2021.

Ross Hugues, who serves as president of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake, and other Church volunteers distribute food boxes to Native Americans representing various tribes who live on the Fort Hall Reservation and in surrounding communities in southeastern Idaho, Monday, February 1, 2021.

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Thousands of tribal members receive USDA food boxes

Volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are distributing food boxes provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (UDSA) to thousands of Native Americans in the United States during the pandemic. The project is part of the USDA’s Farmers to Family Food Box program.

“The USDA Farmers to Family Food Box program was an answer to many urgent prayers as we watched the COVID-19 infection rate soar on the Navajo Nation and surrounding Native American reservations,” said Elder Todd S. Larkin of the Seventy. “Recently, we have been blessed to extend this effort into Idaho and northern Utah.”

A truck delivered 40,000 pounds of food to a Church meetinghouse on the Fort Hall Reservation in southeastern Idaho on Monday, February 1, 2021. It was the third of three deliveries to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

“I think we have such a great distribution system, and the United States Department of Agriculture recognized that we could probably be very effective in getting this into the homes,” said Ross Hugues, a local pediatric dentist and member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, who serves as president of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake.

“As a member of the Church and also as a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to see these two communities come together to serve each other and to be able to bless lives has been close to my heart.” –President Ross Hugues.

Hugues was joined by missionaries and other Church volunteers to distribute the food boxes to Native Americans representing various tribes who live on the reservation and in the communities of Pocatello, Chubbuck and Blackfoot.

This partnership with the Church and USDA is especially valuable because the food is “open to all Native American people” instead of just those from a certain tribe, said Randy’L Teton, public affairs manager for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Teton also functions as the tribes’ COVID-19 public information officer.

“We have 1,300 boxes, each with 30 pounds of food. … As each car comes through, they’re asked the question, ‘How many households are you here representing?’ … We have many, many cars that are representing four or five households,” explained President Hugues.

“We have fresh fruits and vegetables, we have cheese, eggs [and] meat. … Just … really the makings for two good wholesome meals, and then some leftovers on top of that for about a family of six,” he said.

The tribes also dropped off hand sanitizer, wipes and masks to be included in the boxes.

“This is the wonderful handshake we’ve been able to have with them as they recognize the efficiency [with which] we’ve been able to do it, so they’ve been bringing good sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, masks, to be able to distribute to the Native American people as they come through,” said President Hugues.

The distribution was scheduled to begin at noon, but cars began showing up several hours early. Volunteers loaded the boxes into cars in the two-lane drive-thru event until all the boxes were given away that evening.

Full-time missionaries in the Farmington New Mexico Mission have been using pickup trucks to deliver the food boxes to remote areas of the reservations in the American Southwest.

“Thanks to the USDA and their partners, to date we have received 89 semitruck loads of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, meat and dairy products, all neatly arranged into 25- and 30-pound family food boxes,” reported Elder Larkin. “That totals over 115,000 boxes of food distributed on Native American reservations since COVID-19 began, about 3.5 million pounds, all delivered to the reservations without cost.”

“Well over 28,000 individuals now have tested positive for COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation alone, which is roughly one in every five people,” said Elder Larkin.

In Idaho, Teton said the coronavirus has taken the lives of 17 members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, but the infection rate has dropped on the reservation from 70 tribal members testing positive every week to 17 due to weekly screenings that will continue through March.

“During this pandemic everybody is struggling, whether it’s to pay the bills or to purchase food, and those that do work [are] assisting other families just because we’re a small-knit community. And so, any food boxes [are] definitely going to help a lot of families out,” said Teton.

At my house, my grandkids would come over and say, ‘Grandpa, I’m hungry.’ … I don’t want them to starve. … I don’t want them to be hungry. So, it helps a lot.” –Leon AnthonyLeon Anthony is a Navajo artist who lives in Pocatello. “I used to sell, I used to travel, and then the shutdown, you know. It’s hard for me to make extra money, gas money and stuff like that.”

Anthony, a father of three children and grandfather of six, said it’s not uncommon for Native American grandparents to be caring for their grandchildren. “At my house, my grandkids would come over and say, ‘Grandpa, I’m hungry.’ … I don’t want them to starve. … I don’t want them to be hungry. So, it helps a lot.”

“We have about 6,000 tribal members on the Fort Hall Reservation. And I have seen a majority of families coming and taking advantage of the food distribution boxes. I would actually have to say about 1,000 families have successfully been given a food box, whether that’s from a mother taking care of their kids and other family members. So it’s been really an awesome program,” said Teton.

“It goes without saying that it’s near and dear to my heart as a member of the Church and also as a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to see these two communities come together to serve each other and to be able to bless lives has been close to my heart,” added President Hugues.