Getting food into the desert–can SNAP help?


October 5, 2012 by Esther

A food desert right here in the Piedmont area of North Carolina:
Number of people living in the food desert: 9295
Number of people with low access: 9295
Percentage of total population that is low-income and has low access: 79.8%
Number of housing units without a vehicle with low access: 1013
Shocking to see so much unmet need? Maybe not… the census tract with so much apparent unmet need is our very own UNC campus, multiple dining halls, excellent free transportation to grocery stores and all.
The recent buzz over food deserts and the availability of healthy food has brought attention to an important environmental determinant of individual’s nutrition, but it is in no way the only or necessarily the most important issue at stake. It is especially hard to judge the importance of food deserts accurately because “accessibility” depends on a great deal more than proximity of healthy foods: availability of transport, cost, and whether individuals would buy them even if they were delivered to their doorsteps. The above example of UNC’s campus is tongue-in-cheek, but it shows that defining an area as a “food desert” may be misleading in its portrayal of the nutritional habits of a population. To take it a step further, does availability of grocery stores have an impact on long-term nutrition-related health outcomes like BMI? Some research suggests not—one recent study of elementary school children concluded that “differential exposure to food environments bears little relationship to the key outcome of interest, childhood obesity development” (Helen Lee, The role of local food availability in explaining obesity risk among young school-aged children) Of course, discounting the importance of food environment is highly controversial, but it is wise to think critically about what impact a food environment does have and why. Overabundance as well as lack of access may be problematic; the USDA stated in its 2009 report Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: “Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity.” Such food swamps may present a bigger challenge than food deserts: while it is (theoretically speaking) simple to bring healthy food into an area whether through travelling veggie vans, new grocery stores, or putting more fruits and vegetables in the local Walgreens, decreasing access to food presents a mind-bending challenge. Even placing limits on one single food category is a huge political challenge, as illustrated by New York’s recent restrictions of sweetened beverages. Even with the political will, how practical would it be, really, to regulate the entire American diet item by item? And taking into account the fact that food choices are affected by many other determinants, including personal preference and cost, would such action even be wise? Might broadly decreasing access to less healthy foods negatively impact food security?
Perhaps the best way to improve nutrition would be to use food assistance, including SNAP, to encourage healthier eating. SNAP already helps improve food security, but unlike other food assistance programs such as WIC and the school lunch program, SNAP does not have nutrition associated restrictions on what can be purchased. Implementing any such restrictions may be viewed as unfair discrimination against poorer households, yet I believe that it is possible to both respect individual choice and encourage healthier diets. I would suggest doing so by implementing one of the methods used by WIC: either require nutrition education for participants or deliver a portion of SNAP benefits as vouchers for fruits and vegetables. By dedicating a limited portion of the benefits to healthy foods, the program could encourage individuals to eat healthy and encourage grocery stores to stock eligible items while still leaving flexibility in the expenditure in the majority of SNAP benefits. Changes in the WIC food package to include fruits and vegetables were shown to improve their availability, it is to be hoped that a similar change in SNAP could result in a comparable positive change in the food environment.
I know this is a controversial position—please comment below and we can discuss it!


8 thoughts on “Getting food into the desert–can SNAP help?

  1. […] qualifying an area as a “food desert” may be misleading (see Esther’s post about our very own UNC campus being a “certified” food desert), I do believe there is a […]

  2. […] qualifying an area as a “food desert” may be misleading (see Esther’s post about our very own UNC campus being a “certified” food desert), there is a significant amount […]

  3. Perhaps it would be interesting to consider whether there should also be guidelines that require SNAP vendors to carry healthier options (throughout the store) — the operationalization of this will be challenging, but not impossible. WIC vendors have guidelines already.

    • Esther says:

      An interesting idea! Were you suggesting requiring vendors to carry fruits and vegetables in addition to providing part of SNAP benefits as vouchers or leaving the benefits alone and just adding the vendor requirement? To just add a vendor requirement without altering benefits would worry me a little—vendors might be resistant to making changes without any guarantee (as would be provided by the benefits change) that customers would purchase the products. And I definitely don’t want to take any steps that would discourage vendors from accepting SNAP; that would be sadly counterproductive. Adding the vendor requirement in addition to a benefits change would be much more attractive, because it would guarantee the environmental change I’m hoping for! My concern there would be the extent of additional administrative costs. Yes, WIC already does this but it is a major commitment of staff time—Wake County WIC, for example, has two full-time staff who do vendor monitoring and training alone. Consider how much staff time would be needed all across the country to monitor this new regulation for SNAP vendors…I’m not sure exactly what it would come out to, but I have a feeling the impact could be significant. Still, it might be worth it. I think this idea would need a more extensive cost analysis than I’m competent to complete!

  4. afrazzini says:

    Esther, I really like the idea of dedicating a portion of SNAP benefits to healthy foods. It seems more politically feasible and less inherently patronizing than total exclusion of unhealthy foods from SNAP (which NY was unable to get passed because of objections from myriad parties), and doesn’t require increased funding for benefits (unlike the programs that incentivize healthy food purchases by providing extra benefits to those who make healthy purchases). I do think it would require increased program funding for monitoring and enforcement of how vouchers are used, unfortunately – without some sort of monitoring system, there’s nothing stopping store vendors from accepting a $3 vegetable voucher to pay for a $1 bag of chips. But maybe we can be creative and come up with some sort of feasible, inexpensive monitoring system.

    I would expect the idea about creating nutritional guidelines for SNAP vendors to have a fair amount of pushback from the business community, and as you said, it could make program costs balloon. But maybe we could contain costs by scaling those requirements; for example, a store that receives 0-25% of food sales from SNAP purchases might not have to follow any new guidelines, whereas a store that receives 75-100% of food sales from SNAP (which is sometimes the case at corner stores serving low-income housing developments in food deserts) would have to stock a certain amount of healthy food and not have candy at the register. Or something.

    • Esther says:

      Ooooh, good ideas! I know it would be a bit logistically challenging, but maybe combining your idea with allowing any store already WIC-certified (they already have to stock fruit/veg) to automatically qualify under the new guidelines could lessen some of the administrative burden.

  5. jaherber says:

    Esther, I thought your points were well developed and thought provoking! Sometimes it takes controversy to spark change, because if anything else, it initiates dialogue. I too agree that the implementation of a nutrition guided voucher program within SNAP would lead people to better options, but I don’t believe that it would be the main driver of real change. The focal point here, in my opinion, should be the educational element. According to the CDC, “studies have shown that even after healthier food options are more widely available in food deserts, many consumers continue to make unhealthy choices based on personal preferences.” This to me is the crux of the issue. People are going to eat what they know, but at least when educated properly they can make an informed decision. This is why I would implement your required SNAP (WIC based) nutritional education plan alone. As you stated, there is too much political red tape involved in an effort to restrict food choices within food swamps, but if properly educated one would hope that individuals would make the right decision for themselves, and in turn you wouldn’t need to have the nutritional vouchers. I know this may be a bit idealistic. However, freedom of choice is one of America’s greatest attributes, and we have to tread lightly when making restrictive decisions, even if we all know that they are for the benefit of society. Let’s have faith that in this 21st century, people will make the right choices for their families and themselves.
    CDC article:

    • Esther says:

      I guess that I’m just afraid nutrition ed would be 1) very costly and 2) time consuming for SNAP recipients who have other responsibilities and commitments. As you know, some WIC-eligible families don’t participate in that program because it’s “too much trouble.” I’d hate for that to happen with SNAP.

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