The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest nutrition assistance program in the nation and is a very important topic in community nutrition. With our rising obesity epidemic it seems that targeting policy and programs through the SNAP benefits program could be very beneficial at a large scale. The SNAP program serves around 46million Americans each year (1). There is also a correlation between low incomes and high obesity rates; therefore, working through the SNAP program to bring better nutrition to people across the nation could be very effective. What is the best way however? There have been many attempts by cities and states in the past couple years to restrict the foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits. However, because the SNAP program is a federally-regulated policy, any state wishing to apply their own restrictions must apply for a waiver from the USDA, and as of now none have been approved (2). I have mixed feelings about the method of improving nutrition through SNAP policy. While I would love if those funds weren’t used to make poor nutritional choices, such as buying soda, I also want people to be able to make their own choices as adults. Shouldn’t the overall goal be that people understand how to make healthy nutrition choices on their own and then implement that knowledge? On the other hand, if your family needs the assistance of SNAP funds should you be allowed to use them to buy unhealthy empty calories instead of real sustenance for which those funds are intended? In any case, I think it is very important to include an extensive education program within any policy change. That way if restrictions are not imposed people would be given the tools to make better nutrition and other lifestyle choices and if restrictions were imposed people would know how to build healthy nutrition in their homes when they eventually get off of SNAP benefits. Without proper education behind any imposed restrictions I believe some people will go crazy buying the unhealthy foods they craved but couldn’t purchase before if they should get out of the program. I truly believe that the SNAP program could be a vessel of positive change in the nutrition status of many Americans.
There has already been a positive movement through the SNAP program the past couple years. The option of using SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets has increased dramatically. From 2008-2009 the total value of SNAP funds used at farmers’ markets doubled from $2million to $4million and currently there are over 1,150 farmers’ markets and stands accepting EBT cards (3). While the percentage of people using SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets is still relatively low, it is nevertheless a promising trend. Maybe increasing educational programs that target those receiving SNAP benefits about the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet and increasing knowledge of access to farmers’ markets accepting SNAP redemptions could help this trend along. I have great faith that we can make a positive impact on obesity rates of low income families through skillfully planned policy change and additional programs.
One of the major factors in the health status of individuals is availability and affordability of fresh, healthy food. In evaluating our country as a whole, I was very surprised to find out how many food deserts we have in this country. A food desert is defined by the USDA to be a low-income community where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store (ERS). To qualify as a low income community it must either have a poverty rate of over 20% or the median family income must be at or below 80% of the area median family income. Additionally low access is defined as having 500 people and/or 33% of the community more than a mile away from a supermarket or in rural communities more than 10miles away (ERS). Being from a small farming town it has never really occurred to me that being a few miles away from a grocery store would be so problematic, because growing up my house was 10miles away from entering the town so that distance doesn’t seem like it should be an issue. However, in my rural community, everyone that I knew that lived out of a walking friendly distance from a grocery store had access to at least some kind of vehicle, even if it was just a dingy old farm vehicle. I now realize how quickly it can become a health problem if access to a vehicle was compromised in this rural setting. In many rural communities there is no established public transportation to transfer residents to a grocery store. Most people would choose the available unhealthy food such as a nearby fast food restaurant than try to bum a ride off of a friend to the grocery store.
There are many factors that can affect a communities overall health status, and being a food desert has the potential to create many problems. Many people are very busy and low on available food budget money; therefore it is much easier to pick menu items off the value menu at a fast food restaurant on a family member’s way home. This tends to be very calorie dense, nutrient low foods that have a negative effect on a person’s health status if this type of food is consumed regularly. Another problem to consider is that by developing a habit of eating unhealthy, unbalanced diets these families have to overcome these unhealthy habits when/if the community raises access to supermarkets or grocery stores. These communities would most likely benefit from some sort of educational program once they had access so they would have the knowledge and the tools necessary to improve their health status. The First Lady’s initiative Let’s Move! included the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which has funds dedicated to expanding the availability of nutritious food to food deserts/low-income communities by developing and equipping grocery stores, farmers markets, etc. with fresh and healthy food (ERS). So hopefully in the next few years we will be able to see a decrease in food deserts across the nation and a rise in more balanced, healthy communities.
Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food Desert Locator. 2012, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator.aspx