In 2008, food stamps officially got a facelift and were transformed into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. With this snazzy rebranding came a few changes: A new pilot program that encouraged incentives for purchasing healthy foods, the possibility to use SNAP at local farmers' markets, and even an educational resource website. But how effective is SNAP at helping families lead healthier lives?
To be eligible for SNAP benefits, families or individuals need to provide proof that they are at or below the Federal Poverty Level—$11,770 for individuals, $15,930 for a family of two. With 46.5 million people relying on these monthly food benefits, there's no doubt that the funds they get to buy select food items at the grocery store make a difference between eating dinner and going hungry.
But when the USDA collected research on the health habits of those who rely on SNAP, the numbers were dismal. Despite the fact that participants were taking in fewer calories than higher-income nonparticipants, they were still over 10 percent more likely to be obese—a whopping 40 percent of those on SNAP qualify as obese. Strangely, when compared to a group with the same income that did not use SNAP credits, the SNAP participants were more likely to be obese than their nonparticipant counterparts.
What's the problem?
Although SNAP helps those below the poverty line afford groceries, the program isn't contributing to their greater health. SNAP households can use the benefits to buy any food intended to be prepared and eaten at home like breads, cereals, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products. But the average monthly SNAP benefit allowance of $133.07 to buy groceries is still a very tight budget.
It seems that participants are more likely to buy processed foods, soda, and junk food instead of fresh fruits and veggies because they're cheaper and more widely available. Also, believe it or not, the USDA actually recommends processed foods over whole foods.
The Thrifty Food Plan, a menu developed by the USDA for SNAP and families living below the poverty line, suggests what to buy in order to save the most money while fulfilling the Recommended Daily Values for macronutrients. The Plan may be well-meaning, but leads to some questionable recommendations. For example, the average woman should buy less than five pounds of vegetables ... but four pounds of soft drinks every week? Doesn't quite add up.
Why should you care?
The Thrifty Food Plan seems to be perpetuating the obesity epidemic and increasing the demand for processed food in the United States. Even though part of the new SNAP program promised that more farmers' markets would accept SNAP benefits electronically, it's incredibly difficult and time consuming for markets to get approved to accept SNAP. There's also a pilot program designed to incentive SNAP participants for buying healthy foods, but it's still being tested and hasn't yet expanded throughout the country.
As for SNAP-Ed, the educational program the USDA recommends to clients, it's optional and only accessible online. That makes things difficult for those who don't have internet access to learn about nutrition and how to shop for healthy groceries on a budget.
The United States already has an obesity problem, with researchers projecting that by year 2030, 50 percent of Americans will be considered obese. Health costs related to obesity cost the U.S. nearly $200 billion annually, nearly 21 percent of the country's total medical costs. There's no denying that the obesity epidemic costs individuals and the best choice is to buy whole, unprocessed foods to help combat weight gain. But if the only option is to starve or to buy processed foods that contribute to weight gain, SNAP clients don't really have much of a choice.
What can you do?
As dire as the situation seems, there are steps we can take to improve the quality of life, and food, for those who rely on government benefits for groceries. Petition to have your local farmers' market considered for more SNAP benefits. Or buy a Thrive Market membership—for every paying member, we donate a Thrive Gives membership to a family that qualifies.
Photo credit: J.R. photography via Stocksy
We believe that everyone deserves the right to access healthy food. But even in the United States, it can prove impossible for some families. So we created Thrive Gives: a program that gives access, family by family, to affordable, healthy, and wholesome food. Click here to see if you qualify for a free Thrive Gives membership!