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What Can SNAP Do? Addressing Food Access in Low Income Communities

News & Features | April 23, 2018

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, most of whom are children in low-income families, receive an average of $125.80 in benefits to supplement their food shopping necessities per month. This breaks down to a less than impressive $1.50 per recipient for each meal per day. While the program is among the largest of its kind in the United States, its impact on the food-insecure communities that need it the most is under debate.

There is no doubt that access to high-quality and nutritious food is closely related to and has a profound effect on health and quality of life. Lawmakers and advocates for the improvement in the scope and food quality in the SNAP appear to be at odds when it comes to designing a cost-effective and beneficial program.

Since its development, the SNAP program has been criticized, politicized, and under threat of potential defunding because of the common misconception that it is a handout program for the lazy, when in actuality it is a short-term Band-Aid solution that addresses the challenges that low-income families and communities experience due to the environment that encourages Americans to purchase inexpensive and nutrient-poor foods.

In an interview, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Professor and Food Economist Dr. William Masters explains that SNAP acts as more of a “trampoline”—a temporary strategy to help families get back on their feet rather than a generous government program that is taken advantage of by low-income people. Moreover, the benefits of the program are not enticing enough to encourage fraudulence. SNAP has “[low rates of fraud compared to] other major US assistance programs.” In an article for EconoFactMasters breaks down SNAP’s purpose and achievements—he mentions that despite the numbers showing the success and value of SNAP, “large cuts and restrictions on [SNAP and similar programs] are under debate in Congress.” While SNAP, from an economic standpoint, has proven to be a policy effective at increasing food access as it reaches nearly 42 million Americans a month, there are still legitimate concerns about what more the program can do to serve its users.

Proponents of SNAP have also criticized the scope of the program for its lack of nutrition education and failure to incentivize nutrient-rich foods. Jerold Mande and Dr. Norbert Wilson of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy have been key members of the bipartisan advisory council that are asking for nutrition changes in SNAP. While the program has proven effective in increasing access to food, it has fallen short when considering how purchases align with USDA dietary guidelines. Data shows that sugar sweetened beverages are among the highest purchased foods using SNAP program dollars and purchases like these contribute to health issues such as diabetes—however, Mande says these beverages are not exclusively consumed by SNAP consumers. SNAP participants are not a subsect of society with radically different behaviors, but their economic circumstances combined with the food environment affect their choices differently because they are financially limited. There is a food culture in the United States where cheap, nutrient-poor, and high-calorie foods are overconsumed and heavily advertised. A report from Food Research and Action Center explains that food choices are limited by structural barriers such as lack of access to transportation, high cost of quality food and greater availability of fast food. Mande stresses that “[participants] are not making bad [food] choices because they don’t care…but there are pressures that make it difficult to make the [healthiest] choice.”

Following the national shift towards a greater focus on nutrition, the Bipartisan Policy Center launched a task force to promote healthy nutrition through food and health public programs and policies that has proposed a set of 15 changes to the SNAP program to make it healthier. Jerold R. Mande, a Senior Fellow at the Jonathan M. Tisch College at Tufts University and professor at the Friedman School, and Norbert Wilson, a professor of food policy at the Friedman School, are key members of this task force. The team has four distinct focuses: prioritizing nutrition, aligning SNAP with health care, reducing rising costs from its sister program Medicaid, and strengthening SNAP education and ensuring consistency in federal and state programs. Mande also brings up the point that rising health care costs associated with preventable and often nutrition-related diseases is a major public health and economic issue. He emphasizes, “[Access to quality food] is an issue that threatens healthcare and our economy…so the question is how we start responding to [it]?”

It is not certain whether Congress will take the considerations seriously and make changes to the SNAP program. Mande and Masters are both optimistic about SNAP changes but fear that the Trump administration’s agenda does not align with their vision of where SNAP should go and will not continue to fund the program. Masters also explained that there are many significant issues on the table today, and while nutrition and food access are a priority for some, the government is faced with the challenge of addressing many issues, some arguably more challenging than quality food access for low-income families. Masters says that the situation in Washington has forced people at local levels and NGOs to address food access and quality issues while the government is actively thinking of ways to make the program less effective. Local level programs in the Boston area include the Boston Gleaners, which mobilizes volunteers onto farms with food surplus to distribute to local food banks, meal programs, and low income markets. Additionally, Project SOUP Somerville has been fighting hunger since 1969 and continues to run as a food pantry for the local community.

Ideally, the changes to SNAP will incentivize fresh, healthy foods, prioritize education for users, and make educational resources easily accessible. Effective interventions are meant to address food behaviors and to be considerate of cultural and locational differences. For example, Project SOUP Somerville is intentional about providing produce that reflects communities’ cultural identities. This is for states to reconcile for themselves. Mande clarifies that there are guidelines where states would report on food behaviors of its citizens and how the proposed SNAP changes would affect the data. States must demonstrate their adherence to certain regulation—Mande and Wilson make it clear that this is where the success of interventions will be measured.

As Masters explains, SNAP is not a long-term solution for food access issues in the United States. With its current lack of focus on nutrition, the task force including Mande and Wilson, the program needs to undergo critical changes to make it a more effective program. The responsibility for improving the food environment for low-income communities, but also for the larger United States cannot rest on nutrition assistance programs. While government funding and top-down efforts are essential in the success of such programs, local efforts such as the Boston Gleaners Network and Project SOUP Somerville have an important role to play in the fight for food justice.