One of the things I made sure to do while I was visiting Pine Ridge rez in June was to go grocery shopping. No, I didn’t need groceries — okay, except for the crackers I bought because I needed a snack to hold me til dinner. What I needed was information.
I’ve been in the convenience stores on the rez before. The prices for items are generally a bit higher than you’d see elsewhere. But that’s the case with most convenience stores, isn’t it? You are paying for the convenience for which they are so aptly named.
This time I went grocery shopping at the “supermarket” or “supercenter” on the rez, Sioux Nation Shopping Center in Pine Ridge, SD. I would ask you not to confuse this with a market that you would find in a more urban setting, such a Wegman’s that I’ve seen on the east coast. This is more like a rural “mom & pop” type market with a general store attached. It doesn’t even come close to a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Sioux Nation is the only grocery store on the reservation and I have been told often that their prices are much higher than in a “real” grocery store — that is, a chain market. I decided that it was a good idea to verify it for myself. After all, it isn’t unheard of for people to exaggerate a bit, right?
Thursday, before the Crazy Horse riders returned, my husband and I parked and went into the store. The first difference I noticed was that the front entrance was set up in a less that attractive manner — it was set up for security primarily. There was a turnstile to enter the store and the doors were the only glass at the front of the store. There were no windows to let in light and attract the shopper from the exterior.
Once inside, it was clear that this store had not been remodeled since it was built. For us, it was a bit like stepping back in time to our childhood, before the big chain stores were in competition for your family dollars.
Sioux Nation carries Shurfine products as their “store brand.” I remember that brand from when I was a child, in some of my local markets. Sure can’t find it at home anymore.
I had brought my husband with me on this adventure because he is something of a “human calculator.” He remembers numbers the way you and I remember song lyrics or family birthdays. I knew he would recall the prices we pay at our market for the food items we looked at. He did not fail me on this assignment.
The first fact about the prices was that, except for the sales, most prices were indeed higher than home. Most sales were on processed foods and snack foods — but that isn’t much different from grocery stores everywhere.
We headed to the produce section to check out the fresh food. The variety that was available was extremely limited, the quality was so-so. The prices were definitely higher. I am not talking a few cents higher here — I wouldn’t even bother to tell you about a few pennies. I’m talking about 50 cents to a dollar per pound higher for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Next up, dairy — higher. Let’s check meat — higher prices, with less variety and poorer quality than we are used to seeing. There were very few lean meat choices available but there were plenty with high fat and sodium content. (I’m starting to understand the local diet and the reason for the raging epidemic of diabetes on the rez.)
Interestingly, the generic soda/pop prices were about the same or lower than in our area. Since the juice and milk prices were significantly higher than we pay, it made that gap in cost larger than usual and explained why so many children are raised on soda/pop rather than milk and juice.
Overall, prices averaged 20% higher than off-rez prices. I understand the reasons for this from a business perspective. Sioux Nation Shopping Center is run by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. They cannot buy in bulk the way the big supermarket chains do. They also must truck everything in to a rather remote location. Just like “mom & pop” stores, you would expect their prices to be a bit higher (though if the tribe were run more soundly and in better fiscal shape, I would hope they would subsidize the costs for their people since they know well about the 80-90% unemployment . . . just sayin’).
What does this translate to in real life? If you spend $100 for groceries to feed your family shopping off the rez, it will cost you $120 for the same groceries on the rez. If that is a week’s worth of groceries, the $20 per week difference would add up to a whopping $1040 per year. It already sounds like a lot, but when you consider that the average per capita income on the rez is in the $3000 range, you can see that it is a significant portion of your income.
Thus the fact is that those who can afford it least are paying most.
It is a fact that many, if not most, residents on the reservation receive Food Stamps. Food Stamps (also known as SNAP benefits under the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”, although I think that is a misnomer) are part of a Federal government aid program to provide those who meet certain poverty requirements with “help” to be able to afford food.
I looked up the requirements (US citizen, less than $2000 in resources unless you are over 60 or disabled, if so then under $3000 in resources). Resources don’t include your home or the land it’s on, SSI or TANF benefits. A vehicle depends on its use and value (not typically a problem on the rez). Income limits vary based on household size and can change each year.
There was a tool to see if you might be eligible. I put in information as if I was a young couple on the rez with a couple of hundred dollars in cash and 4 children (ages 6, 5, 3 & 1) to feed. This imaginary couple rented, had to pay for heat and electricity, were both unemployed and did not get any SSI or TANF benefits. They had a car valued at $500 (basic transportation).
The family qualified for $942-$952 per month as an estimated benefit. That would be $947 per month if averaged or $157.83 per month per person or $5.26 per day per person. That’s $1.75 per meal per person — wow, that’s gone up from the $1 per meal per person was a little while ago. Personally, I’m not sure it’s gone up as much as food prices have in the same time frame.
If I were to feed a family of 6 like that imaginary family a nutritious diet where I live, I would estimate that it would cost about $250 per week or $1000 per month. By nutritious, I mean a healthy diet with fruit and vegetables, milk or formula for the children and lean meat. So that would actually put the government in the ball park — for a person living in an urban or suburban neighborhood with access to chain grocery markets.
BUT . . .
Let’s recall that we are on Pine Ridge Reservation. We must shop at Sioux Nation Shopping Center or we must travel over an hour to reach a chain market. If we shop at Sioux Nation, with the average of 20% higher prices, our cost for this family will be $1200 for the same healthy diet. If we travel off the rez to shop, the savings in food costs must justify the gas used at a cost of perhaps $3.75 per gallon — in a car that definitely doesn’t get good gas mileage!
Another negative — we can’t carpool to the off-rez market. I asked someone about that once and she laughed. When you are shopping for a month for 6 people, there is no room in the car for extra families and their groceries too. So you can’t defray the cost of the travel by car pooling.
All of the markets, Sioux Nation and off-rez alike, stay open very late on the day that Food Stamp benefits are placed in the EBT accounts. But I am told that whichever you shop at, you need to shop early if you hope to get what you want. Since everyone gets their benefits on the same day, nearly everyone shops on the same day. Stores run out of staples, I’m told. They can’t restock shelves quickly enough, if at all. It sounds like a good way to make shopping even more stressful than it already is, especially on a limited budget. I’m no expert, but it would seem that issuing benefits on a rotating schedule alphabetically (e.g., A-G week 1, H-M week 2, etc) would ease that problem.
As an aside, we need to remember that Food Stamps (and WIC, for that matter) covers only what can be eaten. So food stamps do not cover: cleaning products for the home; personal hygiene products like soap, shampoo, conditioner or toothpaste; feminine hygiene pads or tampons; diapers.
My shopping excursion at Sioux Nation proved that prices on the rez are definitely higher than in off-rez stores.
All of this explains why I get so many calls from families who are running out or have run out of food for the month. This is especially true when you recall that my imaginary family had 4 toddlers. If you changed that to 4 teen or preteen children (especially boys, who have been known to eat you out of house and home as they grow), how much faster would you run out of food without the ability to “run to the market for a gallon of milk” whenever you need it.
It also explains why families are very pleased when their sponsors can order them food through the ONE Spirit food program. The program, working with a South Dakota farmer, provides fresh produce and meat as well as a few other items, delivered to the door. What a wonderful way for a sponsor to supplement the food the family can afford. I have heard that ONE Spirit is working on a way to allow families to use their EBT cards to purchase food for themselves (they can already do this with cash, if they have any). That would be an interesting development.
In the meantime, the choices remain the same: higher prices locally or lower prices at a distance.
It’s a lot like being between a rock and a hard place.