Healthy Food Choices and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
With the rapidly changing economic trends within the United States, participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has ballooned recently. As of April 2, 2012, the total number of individuals participating in SNAP in the United States was 46,449,850. SNAP is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s largest food and nutrition assistance program and the cornerstone of the nation’s programs for reducing food insecurity and hunger. Benefits are granted based on household income, assets, and other basic expenses.
Though the program has shown success in helping low-income families become more food secure, the ever growing obesity epidemic has led some to question which items should be eligible for purchase using SNAP benefits. As determined by the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, households cannot use SNAP benefits to purchase beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, tobacco, vitamins and medicines, hot foods, food that will be eaten in the store, household supplies, pet foods, soaps or paper products. All other food products are available for purchase.
States such as New York, California and Florida have introduced legislation to ban or limit select food products from the list of items eligible for purchase with SNAP dollars. In 2010, the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance requested permission to modify the list of allowable food items to be purchased with SNAP benefits in New York City. The food items that participants could no longer purchase using SNAP benefits would solely include sweetened beverages. The demonstration proposal originated from studies that show a link between sweetened beverage consumption as a major contributor to obesity.
Similarly, in February 2011, California State Senator Michael Rubio (D) introduced a bill that would require the California State Department of Social Services to expand the list of items not allowed to be purchased under the Cal Fresh Program (the name of SNAP in California). In March 2011, Rubio narrowed his list of prohibited items down to only sweetened beverages containing more than 10 calories per cup, excluding juice with no added sugar and milk products. Furthermore, in February 2012 Florida Sen. Ronda Storms (R) sponsored a bill that would prohibit Floridians from purchasing “non-staple, unhealthy foods, such as sodas and candy,” with funds given by the SNAP program.
In 2011, the USDA declined the New York City OTDA waiver request due to difficulties in determining which beverages may or may not be purchased using SNAP dollars and in measuring the effect of such bans. Similarly, there was a lack of support in the California Senate for Sen. Rubio’s bill, which is no longer being considered at this time, and a Florida house subcommittee rejected Sen. Storms’ proposal.
Despite efforts to modify the list of foods allowed for purchase through SNAP, USDA officials state that keeping tabs on hundreds of thousands of food products would be costly and complicated. Furthermore, they also argue that there are no “clear standards” for what constitutes healthful food. One example used was diet soda, which by some measures could be considered healthier than orange juice because of its low calorie and sugar content.
Proponents of such proposals believe that less healthy food items that are currently able to be purchased with SNAP dollars are contradictory to the original intent of the Food Stamp Program. Modifying allowable food purchases under SNAP will promote healthfulness and the nutritional status of individuals participating in SNAP. Furthermore, since SNAP is a voluntary program offered by the U.S. federal government for low-income households, proponents believe U.S. tax dollars should not support programs that do not support health and nutrition. It is a privilege for participants to be able to participate in SNAP, goes this argument, and participants can choose not to participate if they do not wish to follow stricter nutrition guidelines for the program. Sen. Rubio’s legislation noted that the goal for SNAP is to “provide food assistance to raise levels of nutrition among low-income individuals” and his bill aimed to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used to provide healthy, staple food items, similar to the eligible food items provided in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.
The American Society for Nutrition supports modeling the foods available for purchase through SNAP after the current list of allowable foods through the WIC program. The WIC program targets low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant women, breastfeeding women, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age. Benefits of the program include supplemental nutritious foods, including infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas and canned fish. Recently, soy-based beverages, tofu, fruits and vegetables, baby foods, whole-wheat bread and other whole-grain options were added to better meet nutritional needs of WIC participants. Nutrition education and counseling is also provided to WIC participants at WIC clinics, and screening and referrals to other health, welfare and social services are available. ASN acknowledges that nutrition education must be a critical component of all nutrition assistance programs.
As the obesity epidemic becomes more prevalent, government, individuals, private and public organizations and other stakeholders must all work together to find novel approaches to improve the nutritional status of the population. To improve communication of the importance of healthy eating and maximize obesity prevention efforts, the goals and recommendations of U.S. food and nutrition programs, such as SNAP, must be aligned with initiatives such as the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative and USDA’s MyPlate. In order to improve the overall health and wellbeing of more individuals, changes such as modifying allowable foods for purchase with SNAP benefits should be strongly considered.
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