SNAP Decisions: Pushing for Changes in Food Assistance Program

Food Assistance Program

Story at-a-glance -

  • While the federal food assistance program (SNAP) has succeeded in fighting hunger, it has largely failed in providing adequate, much less optimal, nutrition
  • Soda is the No. 1 purchase made by SNAP (and non-SNAP) households
  • About 20 cents of every food purchase dollar was spent on junk foods, including sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar (a similar rate among both SNAP and non-SNAP households)

By Dr. Mercola

About 23 million U.S. households receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, amounting to an average of $253 a month, which can be used to buy "any food or food product for home consumption."1,2

This $74-billion federal food assistance program is intended to help alleviate hunger among those at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line,3 but, as with many federal programs, there's vast room for improvement.

While the program has succeeded in fighting hunger, it has largely failed in providing adequate, much less optimal, nutrition. As Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), put it, "The problem is it provides calories, not healthy food."4

Soda Is the No. 1 Purchase Made by SNAP Households

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (UDSA), which oversees SNAP, published a detailed analysis of what typical households using the SNAP program purchase at the grocery store.

"Across all households [SNAP and non-SNAP], more money was spent on soft drinks than any other item," the report revealed, which shows this isn't an issue unique to SNAP households but rather applies to America as a whole.

Still, SNAP households spent slightly more on soda than non-SNAP households (5 percent versus 4 percent, respectively), and since SNAP money is federally funded, Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, described the program as basically "a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry."5

Many cities and states have called for restrictions on SNAP dollars to prevent the purchase of soda and other sugary beverages and junk food, but such moves have faced criticism over the notion of regulating people's food choices.

It's certainly a slippery slope to begin meddling in people's right to choose what to eat, not to mention that other proclaimed "unhealthy foods," like saturated fats, could end up facing restrictions too.

In a supplement published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) and sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group of researchers also called for changes to the SNAP program to encourage more nutritious food consumption.6

They proposed a "Healthy Staples" program that would restrict SNAP purchases to only four food groups — grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits — and vitamin supplements.

This program would provide 1,800 calories plus a daily multivitamin to a SNAP recipient for just over $121 a month, which is $73 less than the most comprehensive SNAP benefit package, Kaiser Health reported.7 This change alone would save $26 billion a year while providing better nutrition, the researchers concluded.

What you'll notice is that meat is excluded in this program, evidence of the slippery slope I referenced earlier. While it's easy to argue for the exclusion of soda, excluding animal protein could leave recipients at risk of nutritional deficiencies and, when sourced from high-quality grass-fed sources, a healthy dietary staple.

Meanwhile, promoting grain consumption, as the proposed Healthy Staples program does, is encouraging a high-carb diet that is the opposite of what's healthy for most people.

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20 Cents of Every SNAP Dollar Goes Toward Junk Food

Soda wasn't the only unhealthy item found in many U.S. shopping carts. When the USDA broke down expenditure patterns among SNAP and non-SNAP households, there were only limited differences.

"Both household groups were equally likely to purchase salty (bag) snacks (about 3 percent of food purchases), cookies (about 1 percent), and ice cream, ice milk and sherbet (about 1 percent)," the USDA reported.8

Overall, about 40 cents of every food purchase dollar was spent on "basic" items like meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and bread. Another 40 cents was spent on cereal, prepared foods, other dairy products, rice and beans.

The remaining 20 cents was spent on junk foods, including sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.

The similarities between SNAP and non-SNAP household food purchases is noteworthy because it shows that junk food spending is higher than it should be for many Americans, regardless of income, if optimal nutrition is desired.

For this reason, some, such as Diane Schanzenbach, Ph.D., a senior fellow at research firm the Brookings Institution, have called SNAP food restrictions problematic. She told Kaiser Health News:9

"Limiting food options removes the recipients' ability to purchase foods they prefer, and the conversation surrounding healthier options should be framed as a national issue rather than a problem affecting only low-income Americans."

SNAP Recipients at Greater Risk of Premature Death

Another revealing study used data from nearly 500,000 U.S. adults who participated in the 2000 to 2009 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).

They compared all-cause and cardiovascular mortality among three groups of people: those who took part in SNAP, those who were eligible for SNAP but chose not to participate, and those who were ineligible for SNAP.

Compared to those who were ineligible for the program, SNAP participants were found to have a two-fold increased risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality along with a three-fold increased risk of dying from diabetes.10

Those who were eligible for the program, but did not participate, also faced higher premature death risks than those who were ineligible, including a 1.5 times higher risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality and a nearly two-fold higher risk of diabetes mortality.

The study cannot prove that SNAP participation is responsible for the worse health outcomes, but the findings remained after other contributing factors such as age, physical activity, smoking status and more were accounted for.

The researchers did suggest that employment status, educations levels and marital status may have influenced the mortality risks. It was clear, however, that those relying on SNAP "require greater focus to understand and further address their poor health outcomes. Public Health Implications," the researchers concluded.11

They continued, "Low-income Americans require even greater efforts to improve their health than they currently receive, and such efforts should be a priority for public health policymakers."12

In Latin America, Obesity Rates Rise Along With Ultra-Processed Food Consumption

A new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) revealed that weight gain as a result of processed food consumption has replaced hunger as a top public health problem.

About 58 percent of people living in Latin America and the Caribbean are now overweight, the report found. Rates were highest in the Bahamas (69 percent), Mexico (64 percent) and Chile (63 percent).13

Another 23 percent of the region's population is obese, leading FAO officials to say the data should act as a wake-up call to area governments. According to FAO:14

"Economic growth, increased urbanization, higher average incomes and the integration of the region into international markets have reduced the consumption of traditional preparations and increased consumption of ultra-processed products, a problem that has had greater impact on areas and countries that are net food importers.

To address this situation, FAO and PAHO call for the promotion of healthy and sustainable food systems that link agriculture, food, nutrition and health.

To this end, countries should promote the sustainable production of fresh, safe and nutritious foods, ensuring their supply, diversity and access, especially for the most vulnerable sectors."

Depending on the amount of adulteration the food goes through, processing may be considered minimal or significant. "Ultra-processed" foods are at the far end of the significantly altered spectrum.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include breakfast cereals, pizza, soda, chips and other salty/sweet/savory snacks, packaged baked goods, microwaveable frozen meals, instant soups and sauces, and much more. More than half of the U.S. diet is also made up of ultra-processed foods.15

Crop Insurance, Farm Program Payments Perpetuate a Cheap, Processed-Food Diet

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa recently made statements to the press in favor of preserving crop insurance programs over other farm program payments. Farmers have the option of purchasing federally supported crop insurance as a risk-management tool, which pays out if crops are lost due to a variety of causes.16

There is much waste in the system, which pays out large payments to rich farmers while ignoring small farmers in need. In April 2015, Grassley introduced the Farm Payment Loophole Elimination Act, which states that recipients of farm subsidies be actively engaged in farming. Outrageously, the Agricultural Act of 2014 currently allows farmers not actively engaged in farming to receive farm subsidies.

Another example of farm program payments is the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program, which was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill. Under the PLC program, the USDA must issue payments to farmers if the average market prices for certain commodities dip below a reference price.

The crops subsidized under this program are one in the same with those used to create a junk food diet, namely genetically engineered corn and soy. According to Western Farm Press:17

"Grassley and other advocates claim the crop insurance-oriented program saves money but recent figures show USDA has been paying about $6 billion a year for indemnity payments compared to about $5 billion for the direct payments under the 2008 farm bill."

That's billions of dollars being paid to continue growing the junk-food diet that, in turn, lawmakers want to restrict people on SNAP programs from using federal funds to purchase. Further, eating a healthier diet (defined as rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts in one study) was found to be significantly more expensive than an unhealthy diet (rich in processed foods, meats and refined grains).18

Part of what makes the processed food diet cheaper is the fact that the U.S. government is actively subsidizing a diet that consists of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, corn oil and grain-fed cattle, a direct result of their flawed farm subsidy system. It's an upside-down reality, one that could be solved with a return to healthy, diversified food systems.

It's worth noting that the SNAP program does allow purchases at some farmers markets and can also be used for food-producing plants and seeds, which allows participants to grow their own produce — one of the best choices economically and for your health. Bone broth, fermented vegetables and sprouts (grown at home) are examples of additional foods that are inexpensive and phenomenal for your health, and you can find more tips for eating healthy on a tight budget here.

Unfortunately, many inner-city areas are void of healthy food sources — people are literally buying their food at gas stations and the like, as there are no grocery stores in the neighborhood. So, investing in regional and local food systems is imperative if we are to change this situation for the better.