The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program, sending an average of $490 per month to more than 22 million low-income families to help them afford a healthy diet. Although research shows that SNAP effectively reduces hunger, a more important concern has become the quality, not the quantity, of food purchased by SNAP families. SNAP lacks nutritional standards, leaving essentially no restrictions on the types of food families can buy with benefits. The result? SNAP households use a large portion of the benefits to purchase unhealthy foods, leading to poor diet quality, disease, and premature death among SNAP participants.
The problem of obesity and diet-related diseases in America has long been a public health crisis — a problem the epidemic has only worsened. Alarmingly, 40 percent of adults and 20 percent of children in the United States are obese, and low-income groups suffer disproportionately. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity increases the risk of developing serious diseases and health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and mental illness, increasing the likelihood of poorer health among Americans in the long term. .
America’s obesity problem is bigger than SNAP, but SNAP undoubtedly plays a role. SNAP’s unique status as a strictly food benefit, along with its vast reach, means the program has tremendous potential to improve nutrition among low-income Americans. By adding nutritional value, SNAP can fundamentally change the eating habits of low-income households, catalyzing improved diets for them, as well as higher-income populations by emphasizing good nutrition.
However, recent comments by Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Thomas Vilsack reflect USDA’s reluctance to address these challenges. The USDA oversees SNAP and, at a recent House Appropriations Committee meeting to review the 2024 USDA budget, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) asked Vilsack directly: “Is there any effort to limit what can be purchased in the SNAP program? This program, perhaps , to allow the American public to be educated about the composition of bad foods or good foods, as does the WIC program, which you also oversee?”
Vilsack responded: “We basically have an education component of SNAP that does exactly that. We provide incentives for healthy choices.”
Vilsack added, “It’s important to understand [that] What we’re not trying to do is stigmatize people who are struggling financially,” indicating that placing nutritional standards on SNAP purchases would increase stigma. (Notably, obesity stigma is probably a much bigger problem than SNAP stigma.) Vilsack says the USDA wants to “trust the consumer” to make good dietary choices.
What Vilsack fails to mention is the ineffectiveness of SNAP’s nutrition education program and its health incentives. He should know, because he oversaw SNAP as USDA secretary under President Barack Obama from 2009-2016, before returning to the helm in 2021 under President Biden. Despite Vilsack’s tenure at the USDA, the quality of SNAP adults’ diets has deteriorated during his time, and the obesity rate among US adults has risen from 33.7 percent in 2007-2008 (the year before his original appointment) to 42.4 percent in 2017. 2018 (most recent year for data).
According to government reports, SNAP’s nutrition program has done nothing to change this trend. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2019 that evidence of the effectiveness of SNAP’s nutrition education programs was lacking, and an evaluation by the USDA found that the healthy incentive program cited by Vilsack did not reduce unhealthy food purchases, although it did slightly increase fruit and vegetable intake. . purchase
The USDA’s decision to “trust the consumer” is also problematic. Should the federal government knowingly subsidize unhealthy foods and poor health in the name of consumer choice? Other federal food programs don’t work this way. In fact, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program must meet federal nutrition standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and set federal regulations for eligible foods in the Supplemental Nutrition Program of the USDA Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. . In these programs, USDA accommodates consumer preferences within a framework of good nutrition. It should do the same with SNAP.
Congress needs to recognize the inadequacy of SNAP’s current nutrition system and the USDA’s failure to address the gravity of the public health crisis we face. Congress is debating reauthorization of SNAP as part of the 2023 farm bill. Congress should use this as an opportunity to establish nutritional standards in SNAP, authorize restrictions on unhealthy foods, and force retailers to market healthier foods to consumers.
Angela Rachidy is a Senior Fellow and Rowe Scholar in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies poverty and the impact of federal safety-net programs on low-income Americans.
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