SNAP Loses Almost $40 Billion

snapThe Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, took a huge funding cut on Nov. 1.

The program lost nearly $40 billion, causing 47,000,000 people nationwide to rethink their food options — about one out of every seven Americans.

More than 800,000 Oregonians (one fifth) rely on SNAP benefits, making Oregon the state with the second-highest percentage of enrollees. For a family of three, the change reduces monthly benefits from $348 to $319, equating to about $1.40 per meal per person since Nov. 1. The issue here is not only the difficulty of feeding a low-income family on such an amount, but meeting their basic nutritional needs.

The program started in 1939 as a way to help feed the hungry, while also providing a market for fresh agricultural surplus; improving the diets of Americans struggling with poverty. However, with the increase in processed foods and limited restrictions on what foods can and cannot be purchased with food stamps, Americans are buying what Americans normally buy: refined and processed foods.

As obesity continues to dominate the American health scene, policymakers are questioning the leniency of the SNAP program. In June of this year, the mayors of 18 cities urged Congress to ban the use of food stamps for purchase of sugary drinks in response to the rising cost of health care and the nation’s “mounting crisis of diet-related disease.”

The first time that these beverages came under fire was in 1964 when Congress debated whether soda should be allowed under food stamps. The findings of a Harvard School of Public Health Poll reveal that “69% of Americans favor removing sugary drinks from the list of approved SNAP products.” Despite the concern that spending SNAP benefits on soda and junk food raises the cost of health care for taxpayers, not much progress has been made on the issue since.

So what is stopping soda from joining the ranks of alcohol and tobacco in regard to food stamps? According to the summary entitled “Implications of Restricting the Use of Food Stamp Benefits,” the issue is that “no clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.”

“Diet sodas, for example, may pass a test based only on the absence of undesirable nutrients: they have no fat or sugars, are low in calories, and contain little sodium. Based on these criteria alone, they would appear preferable to orange juice,” it continues.

Other examples show that reduced sodium potato chips could be healthier than some breakfast cereals, and that donuts, fortified with vitamins and minerals, are also a “healthy” option despite the amount of fat and added sugars.

A more significant issue is money. The same summary argues that, “Implementation of food restrictions would increase program complexity and costs.” In other words, mega corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo would be none too pleased to see their soft drinks out of the food stamp market.

It’s a little tricky. SNAP receives major donations from corporations such as Wal-Mart, which donates about $2 billion per year. Wal-Mart, like many corporations, is opposed to the nutritional improvements regarding removing soda from the SNAP menu. So, lobbyists who want to refine SNAP guidelines are in danger of offending the very corporations that make the largest contributions to the program, even if the contributions provide them with a fairly convenient feedback loop of spending.

The final issue is a significant lack of research on the efficacy of the SNAP program in terms of improved diet. There is no public data on what Americans are choosing to buy with their SNAP benefits. According to the summary, “No evidence exists that food stamp participation contributes to poor diet quality or obesity.” The opposite is also true. SNAP, which has an “n” for nutrition as the second letter, has no evidence that the program improves nutrition. Without nutrition, the program would merely be called SAP.

When comparing SNAP to WIC, benefits for Women, Infants and Children, there is a clear distinction. Based on a system of vouchers, the USDA list of WIC-approved foods is lengthy and clear. Soda is definitely not on the list, nor are fruit juices with added sugar, canned vegetables with added sugar, peanut butter spreads, and even white potatoes. WIC-eligible foods must meet strict FDA nutritional guidelines, begging the question, why should approved foods for food stamps be different than for WIC? It’s certainly not unprecedented that government food programs would exclude some items for myriad reasons.

If SNAP is to succeed in the face of major funding cuts, what we need are more studies, clearer FDA standards for defining the healthfulness of foods, more incentives for buying fresh foods, and more nutrition and cooking classes for low-income Americans. Another positive movement focuses on CSA farms (Community Supported Agriculture) to accept food stamps. This ensures that low-income families have access to organic produce and supports our local farmers.

by Maria Brown