SNAP To It! Coordinating the Efforts of Food Assistance Program in the US

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October 9, 2012 by nutritionpolicy2012

Jen Sohl

Food insecurity is an issue faced by many Americans. Recognizing that nobody should go hungry, governmental programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC), the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program seek to offer food assistance to low-income adults and their children. The 2008 Farm Bill American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 have been successful in increasing SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) participation and benefits in the past few years. The question remains, have the efforts of USDA supported programs really helped to improve the health of low-income Americans?

In this election year, governmental spending regarding USDA domestic food and nutrition assistance programs has been scrutinized. Spending on these programs is closely tied to the economy. Google the terms food assistance programs or SNAP, and you’ll find all the Obama-smashing figures you can imagine such as this one.

Though food assistance programs can be easy political targets, the truth is that the 2009 ARRA stimulus has enabled low-income households who qualify for SNAP to spend more on food, leading to a 2.2% decline in food insecurity in these groups despite our current recession.

Controversy also surrounds SNAP’s effectiveness in improving the overall health of participants. Obesity in this country has been receiving far more attention than food insecurity, so how does that fit into the equation? A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that low-income SNAP participants were of lower overall quality than low-income nonparticipants (1). They consumed more sugar sweetened beverages and fewer whole grains than their nonparticipant counterparts. Understandably, quite a bit of discussion surrounds whether or not limitations should be placed on the types of foods one can buy with SNAP. WIC-approved foods must follow specific health guidelines. Should SNAP-approved foods meet the same criteria or would restrictions simply decrease participation?

Many low-income Americans live in food deserts. A food desert is defined as a low-income census tract where a substantial percentage of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store (2). According to the USDA 6,529 food-desert census tracts have been identified in the continental U.S. Though individuals in these food deserts have low access to grocery stores, they often have plenty of access to corner stores and fast food establishments that serve up less than ideal options in terms of nutrition. The availability of unhealthy foods and lack of availability of healthy foods in these areas has been linked the development of chronic disease associated with obesity.

The National School Lunch Program has recently gotten in on the movement addressing childhood obesity by enforcing new, stricter guidelines about what can and cannot be offered in school cafeterias. It is still too early to see whether this change will help to make a difference in decreasing childhood obesity or if it will just increase the hunger levels in the kids that need the program most. Either way, it is clear that most students are not happy with the changes to school lunches.

 

Because our food deserts are more like swamps of processed foods and SNAP offers low-income individuals equal access to unhealthy foods, we cannot deal with the issue of food insecurity without considering obesity. While overweight and obesity are major concerns for Americans in all income brackets, and a shift in socials norms is needed, we need to approach these topics in a unique way with those whose food options are limited by their low-income status. Clearly there is no simple solution to the hunger-obesity paradox, so the government can’t just “SNAP to it” and fix this dilemma overnight. While maintaining the programs that are in place, incentives may encourage participants to choose healthier foods through SNAP. Also, coordinated, widespread efforts involving social media and increasing access to healthy foods must be made in order to make a slow but steady change in social norms. It will not be fast or easy, but it is certainly an approach worth discussing!

 

  1.  Leung CWDing ELCatalano PJVillamor ERimm EBWillett WC. (2012). Dietary intake and dietary quality of low-income adults in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Am J Clin Nutr, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.040014
  2. USDA Economic Research Service Food Desert Locator. Available from http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator/go-to-the-locator.aspx (Accessed 2012,  October 4)
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2 thoughts on “SNAP To It! Coordinating the Efforts of Food Assistance Program in the US

  1. hpworley says:

    I agree Jen; food swamps, desserts, insecurity, obesity and SNAP—it’s hard to discuss one without the other. Your post reminds me of a conversation our cohort had in NUTR 720 this summer where we discussed whether or not it was fair to place increased limitations on what SNAP participants could purchase. In particular we discussed the pros and cons of banning the ability of SNAP participants to purchase soda, with even the 20 or so of us unable to come to an agreement. Class readings articulated both sides of the debate. The pro ban side cited that 4 billion SNAP dollars were used for the purchase of carbonated soft drinks while the con ban side stated a restriction would result in food arguments over good and bad food, increase stigma and decrease SNAP participation (1). I found the same article as you, while researching for my blog, and was surprised to read how SNAP participants had a lower quality of diet than non-SNAP participants. While it’s obvious more needs to be done to ensure that government funded nutrition programs align with government nutrition recommendations, the best way to accomplish this is, at best, unclear. Recommendations put forth include incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases and increasing accessibility of healthy foods to those in underserved communities (1), which sound promising, but are no doubt easier said than done.

    1) Should soda be excluded from foods food stamp users can buy? https://sakai.unc.edu/access/content/group/85520b9d-9da9-4542-be48-7acbab5e1d8b/M1%20Unit%203%3A%20PH%20Nutr%20Programs%20_May%2012_/cq_researcher_preventing_obesity.pdf

  2. eldavies3 says:

    Thanks for your post, Jen! Like Heidi, I was reminded of some of the passionate arguments I’ve heard both for and against limiting options available for SNAP participants. On one hard, I appreciate people’s misgivings about letting the federal government dictate food choices. On the other hand, I think we can all admit that obesity is a major problem that we’re facing, and, as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures! Personally, I support putting restrictions on the foods people can purchase with SNAP dollars. WIC puts restrictions in place — why? To protect the health of pregnant women, their developing fetuses, infants, and children. Few people argue the importance of ensuring good nutrition for these people in particular. Why then shouldn’t we extend the same logic to SNAP recipients, who, as you mentioned, are at greater risk for having a low-quality diet? Is it really a good idea for federal funds to go toward purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages and other junk food when we recent studies (see the link below) and common sense (!) suggest they’re associated with obesity? I would argue no, it isn’t a good idea.
    SNAP-Ed is a component of the SNAP program that provides nutrition education for SNAP recipients. Their website has an excellent recipe database with cost-effective, healthy recipes that are nutritious and easy to prepare (link below.) I suppose the idea is that with sufficient education, people can make their own choices about which foods to purchase. But I think it’s time for SNAP and to put its money where it’s figurative mouth is. Restrictions for SNAP purchases combined with greater regulation of the food industry could produce a major change in the food culture and health of this country.

    Recent studies linking soda and obesity:
    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-21/lifestyle/sns-rt-us-obesity-sodabre88k178-20120921_1_sugary-drinks-sugary-beverages-obesity

    SNAP-Ed recipe finder:
    http://recipefinder.nal.usda.gov/

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