Increasing SNAP Restrictions could benefit health & government

*Below is an Op-Ed I wrote for a class assignment, but wanted to share in light of some themes (block grants, budget-centric policy making) that while present in politics forever, have been prevalent recently in regards to health care reform*

 

It may seem early to start thinking about the 2018 Farm Bill, but under the new administration, food policy is dynamic. While the 2018 Farm Bill has heavy implications for small and large farmers’ day-to-day operations and sustainability, it also affects funding of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other nutrition programs.  Just about 75% of the Farm Bill budget goes to nutritional programs like SNAP, accounting for about 89 billion dollars in federal spending in 2016­1. In 2014, when the previous Farm Bill was passed, spending cuts to SNAP were a huge source of debate.

Farm Bill 2018

To avoid a repeat of 2014, when political standstill significantly delayed the passing of the bill, let’s start talking about changes to the SNAP program now. Public health experts have been pushing for buying restrictions on SNAP for years, usually dismissed by Republicans as unnecessarily patronizing the American public. An alternative to banning junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages purchases under SNAP benefits is to give users incentives for buying whole fruits, vegetables and grains2.  Research shows that this is successful on a small scale, increasing the amount of fruit and vegetable purchases by giving people an extra 30 cents per dollar when they buy fruits or vegetables2. Placing restrictions on junk foods and incentives on healthy foods doesn’t necessarily get to the bottom of the budget issues, however they ensure that the government money is going towards products that will improve health (other aspects of the Farm Bill control subsidies and have the power to incentivize healthy foods for all).

From a tax-payer perspective, I am in favor increased regulation if it means SNAP users are buying more nutritional foods.  The SNAP program is designed to be some of the money that low-income families need to purchase groceries, not all of it. Think about it – junk foods that are high in salt and fat, sugar sweetened beverages and even some processed red meats are linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. How is that any different from restricting the purchase of tobacco products and alcohol?

Another method of controlling SNAP purchases is through modifications to grocery and corner stores that accept SNAP.  This could include changing the layout to prompt shoppers to buy healthier foods rather than processed foods2. Many big food companies have contracts with stores regarding displays, making this difficult to achieve.  Grocery and corner stores face requirements regarding food offerings and product visibility as conditions for accepting SNAP2.  Increasing those requirements to include fresh fruits and vegetables and prominent displays for healthier items would increase access to healthy foods, especially in corner stores which are commonly located in food deserts. Upping store requirements could cause stores to drop out of the SNAP program all together, which decreases overall access to food. However, similar changes were made under the WIC program in which stores dutifully complied.

Republicans favor the budget-only approach that shifts the SNAP program to block-grants, giving each individual state control over benefits1.  Block-grants cut spending dramatically, which limits the scope and impact of SNAP.  Returning to my previous point, if we are going to uproot the program, shouldn’t we think about its impact on individual and family nutrition as motivators?

We need to remind our policymakers to think beyond the monetary aspect of decisions like the impending Farm Bill, as its impact reaches beyond the economy.  If we step out of the deep and ever-growing pockets of Big Ag leaders like Monsanto (with whom President Trump just had a meeting1) and Big Soda, our options for improving the nutrition of our nation will increase.  It is possible to make changes to SNAP that increase health outcomes for its users AND decreases spending and reliance on government assistance.

What are your thoughts on the 2018 Farm Bill?

References:

  1. Douglas, Leah. (February 8, 2017). The Future of the Farm Bill. Civil Eats, retrieved from http://civileats.com/2017/02/08/sneak-peek-coming-farm-bill-process/
  1. Farley, Thomas & Sykes, Russell. (March 20, 2015). See No Junk Food, Buy No Junk Food. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/21/opinion/see-no-junk-buy-no-junk.html?_r=0

 

 

Laura Ryan