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After a Fraught History, Some Tribes Finally Have the Power to Rethink ‘Commodity Foods’

The USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) is both loved and reviled. Now, seven tribes have the opportunity to bring more fresh, local, traditional foods to their communities.

When every powwow was cancelled in 2020 and Native festivities moved to a Facebook group called the “Social Distance Powwow,” Jon Shellenberger noticed a sharp uptick in online sales of his T-shirts featuring the generic black and white labels for luncheon meat, peanut butter, enriched farina, and egg mix that once covered cans of commodity foods.

People from a number of different tribes began sharing the T-shirts, and, for a while, Shellenberger, a Yakama artist and archaeologist, couldn’t print enough.

To outsiders, wearing this kind of hardship on your chest might seem odd. The graphics on the labels, which read, “U.S. inspected and passed by Department of Agriculture,” are not exactly appetizing. But for those who grew up eating commodity foods, commonly known in Native America as “commods,” the nostalgia they evoked made the $20 shirts especially popular.