SNAP-Ed: Where Are the Cuts
The Food Journal
March 5, 2013
- SNAP and the Farm Bill were linked decades ago in an effort to combine food assistance and agriculture programs to pass both with minimum of debate and controversy. Hardly the case any longer, politicians push for their split in order to have a separate vote on each piece while other lawmakers disagree, citing the isolation of SNAP would make it vulnerable for severe cuts. In a House of Agriculture Committee opinion piece, overall, Republicans are insisting that the cuts are far more minor in scope than the Democrats are hailing.
- Dietary guidelines are applied in menu planning in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and education materials in SNAP's updated Guidance Plan suggest you make half your plate fruits and vegetables with at least half your grains whole grains and switch to fat free or low fat milk products. A maximum nutritional diet for families is outlined on USDA's ChooseMyPlate. In what is called "Snap-Ed time," lessons must be taught to food benefit recipients or those eligible to receive benefits. For example, in Kentucky, an agent holds a health day camp for youth at the local housing authority. Various activities throughout the day include learning to plant a container garden, preparing a healthy lunch, fruit and vegetable relays, bingo and physical activity.
- When USDA's Food and Nutrition Service undersecretary Kevin Concannon said, "Most of what USDA's Food and Nutrition Service does is through others," he's referring to hundreds of religious organizations, volunteers and non profits that use a combination of FNS programs, donations and community building techniques to feed low income Americans. But not-for profit food banks are working overtime. Kate MacKenzie, director of policy and government relations for City Harvestsaid the non-profit saw a 77% increase since 2008. City Harvest is fortunate enough to have in place its own in-house nutrition education programs, Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters™. In Missouri, one of the highest recipients of SNAP-Ed money, food banks are on hyper drive.
- Farmers are taxed already by the extended time spent at farmers markets and will need more time to train when EBT cards are accepted on-site. There will also be fees. But organizations are forming to supporting their transition. CEO Michel Nischan's Wholesome Wave Foundation's Seven Steps to Success aids farmers in the transition of accepting SNAP. Greenmarket has been operating SNAP at their farmers markets in NYC since 2005. They proved to the New York City Council that accepting SNAP benefits at their markets would be vital to improving the health of New York City residents. This secured them public support and funding for promotions and staffing. Will farmers markets across the country follow suit?
- Supermarkets are concerned about administrative burdens in policing an amended SNAP food restrictions list (see NGA letters to House of Reps: House Agriculture Committee Letter and CEO Vote No on Paul Amendment Letter). The GMA weighs in on limitations with SNAP to point out that, "With the introduction of more than 30,000 new products in the marketplace every year and limited retailer technology, updating and following the prohibited lists will become a costly, time-consuming burden on both retailers and manufacturers." SNAP participants are doing their part by making web sites that help others understand what can and can't be bought, and nutritious choices of foods at specific markets in their area.
- On the Nutrition Policy blog of the students in the Department of Nutrition at UC-Chapel Hill, they question whether there should be guidelines that require SNAP vendors to carry healthier options (throughout the store) - the operationalization of this will be challenging, but not impossible. WIC vendors have guidelines already. Another suggestion is to deliver a portion of SNAP benefits as vouchers for fruits and vegetables. Changes in the WIC food package to include fruits and vegetables were shown to improve their availability.
Consumer food choices with SNAP:
Families on SNAP still have money to spend on food, close to $820 a month. According to an Institute of Medicine report commissioned by the USDA in January 2013, the maximum snap allotment is based on the Thrifty Food Plan, "a model market basket of food that represents a nutritious diet at minimal cost." This assumes participants will cook from scratch and not buy prepared foods. But do the recipients have the time, education, equipment or access to healthy food? A survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation reports on the key role mothers have as models for their children's eating habits. Together, mothers and their children make or influence food purchases and meal decisions. For a family on SNAP, this decision is based not only on an allowable food list, but time available to prepare a healthy meal. Fruits and vegetables aside, a large portion of SNAP expenditures are on dry and canned goods as well as deli. The addition of nutritional guidelines on product labels (with some consensus on what constitutes "healthy") only goes so far with people who don't have time to read details, or the necessary background to understand them. With cuts in SNAP-Ed, the development of information on the Nutrition Facts panels that appear on food packages may have to grow in importance but can they be clear to the population? Lempert commentary. Newark, NJ Mayor Booker tried to survive on SNAP and found it to be very challenging.
Government Education versus Retailer Assistance:
The National Academy of Sciences reports that SNAP doesn't account for many barriers in finding affordable nutritious food by inner city shoppers or those living in a food desert. Blame of food deserts could be put upon supermarkets, but they left because of robbery, lag of customers between welfare checks and sales of products in health and beauty that low income people didn't buy. Supermarkets are going back in these areas for a variety of reasons, but among them is technology's increased sophistication (planograms) with stocking shelves and placement of products people are going to buy. Placement and signage could also address some of the necessary nutritional education. Supermarkets have been increasing their efforts to educate customers in general though promotions of healthy products, in-store magazines with healthy eating messaging, and in-store nutritionists. However, the number of stores that employ dietitians is still a small percentage and often these are in predominately higher income areas. Supermarkets across the board have an opportunity to fill the gap in education for their SNAP customers as well as all shoppers Hentges commentary. Some retailers have grouped WIC items and there is an opportunity here to do some messaging.
How valuable is SNAP-Ed to the consumer?
In a recent National Grocers Association-SupermarketGuru 2013 Consumer Panel Survey, people want to know their produce has not traveled far and is fresh. People correlate closeness with better nutrition because food is fresher and traveled a short distance. A W. K. Kellogg Foundation survey found that 93 percent of Americans said they believe it's "important" to "make sure all Americans have equal access to fresh fruits and vegetables." According to the letter written by the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior to the Senate and House committee on Agriculture in 2011 (see SNAP-Ed funding projects link), programs such as Double Up Food bucks in Michigan providing education at farmers markets helped to triple the purchase of fruits and vegetables. A SNAP-Ed School Nutrition Policy initiative involving fourth and fifth graders resulted in a 50% reduction in obesity. "This funding cut to the program undermines and weakens a critical component of our nationwide efforts to promote healthy eating and prevent chronic disease just as investments to prevent obesity and promote healthy eating are beginning to show results," said Matthew Marsom, an executive with the Public Health Institute. The consumer is aware he/she is hungry. And when they have limited education on what to buy, corporations that are teaming up with food banks and Feeding America Advocacy programs are helping to fill the gap.