Our Work

Food Insecurity and Food Access in Washington State Tribal Communities During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities and their main sources of economic support. Tribal reservations have seen higher infection rates compared to neighboring areas and the closure of gaming and hospitality businesses has removed some of the vital economic lifelines. Many tribal communities are struggling to meet basic food needs, especially in deprived and geographically remote areas of WA State. Currently, little is known about how the 29 federally recognized tribes in WA State are coping with the present crisis. Tribal food security may depend on the resilience of the local food supply chains, but also on the continued functioning of alternative food systems (hunting, fishing) that are a key component of food sovereignty. The NW Tribal Food Sovereignty Coalition (NTFSC) staff at the Northwest Tribal Epidemiology Center (NWTEC) will work with the UW Center for Public Health Nutrition to develop unique culturally and regionally relevant instruments to define and measure constructs of food security that are of importance to the AI/AN population.


The project will address the needs of groups and households affiliated with the 29 federally recognized tribes in WA State. First we will develop a semi-structured interview guide that is contextually appropriate for tribes and their affiliates, such as fishing communities in Yakama Nation and the traditional foods programs of the Muckleshoot, Squaxin, Lummi, and Puyallup tribes. The goal will be to explore the diversity of approaches for supporting tribe members’ food access and security and the use of traditional foods during the pandemic as well as on-reservation food assistance. Second, findings from the interviews will be used to construct a household-level survey to assess changes in food access pathways (supermarkets, food assistance, food banks, mobile deliveries), the types of foods acquired, particularly traditional foods, and economic well-being. The data will be aggregated at State, tribal, reservation, and geographical levels and compared to similar state data to provide insights to the National Indian Health Board (NIHB), the Northwest Tribal Epidemiology Center (NWTEC), Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), American Indian Health Commission (AIHC), Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), and WA State food assistance agencies trying to respond to rapid alterations in food supply and demand from tribes during the pandemic.


University of Washington Population Health Initiative

Project Team

  • Lead Investigator: Jennifer Otten, PhD, RD, Associate Professor, UW School of Public Health, Department of Environment and Occupational Health Sciences & Food Systems Director, Center for Public Health Nutrition
  • Victoria Warren-Mears, PhD, RDN, FAND, Director, Northwest Tribal Epidemiology Center, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board
  • Nora Frank-Buckner, MPH, Food Sovereignty Initiatives Director, Northwest Tribal Epidemiology Center, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board
  • Brinda Sivaramakrishnan, MPH, Professor, Tacoma Community College
  • Laura Lewis, PhD, Professor, Community and Economic Development, Washington State University
  • Adam Drewnowski, PhD, Professor, UW School of Public Health, Epidemiology, Center for Public Health Nutrition Director
  • James Buszkiewicz, MPH, PhD, Research Scientist
  • Chelsea Rose, PhD, Research Coordinator
  • Alan Ismach, Research Coordinator

Project Period


Project Status


Project Contact

Jennifer Otten, jotten@uw.edu