SNAP Reform: Policy Options - Capital Area Food Bank
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SNAP Reform: Policy Options

By Leah Koeppel August 24, 2012

The Capital Area Food Bank continues its on-going discussion on SNAP reform – ways to help the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program encourage healthy eating among program participants. Among SNAP reform options intended to improve the diets of participants, there are four major recommendations:

  1. Increase overall SNAP benefits
  2. Designate SNAP benefits for healthy food purchases
  3. Provide incentives for purchasing healthy foods
  4. Expand nutrition education

The first two recommendations will be the focus of this post.

Increase Overall SNAP Benefits

Increasing the dollar amount of SNAP benefits would allow participants to buy more healthy foods by providing them with more purchasing power. The Economic Resource Service (ERS) reported that an increase in SNAP benefits will essentially increase household income, resulting in more food spending. Increasing SNAP benefits gives participants freedom to determine their food purchases and guarantees more revenue for grocery stores, with no additional costs to regulatory authorities for management of the program.
However, with added benefits, SNAP recipients can choose to purchase any foods and they will not necessarily purchase and consume more healthy foods. An increase in SNAP benefits as stated by ERS “may not improve the nutritional quality of food choices,” since consumers buy foods based on a variety of factors including taste, variety, and convenience. In fact, in a study of food purchasing habits in US households of varying incomes, data showed “an unconstrained increase in income barely increases fruit and vegetable purchases.”
The largest increase in spending on fruits and vegetables was found in the two lowest income groups, but the overall change was still minimal.

Designate SNAP Benefits for Healthy Food Purchases

Designating SNAP benefits for the exclusive purchase of healthy foods would prevent participants from buying unhealthy foods with their benefits and ensure that their diets incorporated a certain amount of healthy foods. SNAP would move towards being closer to the WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), in which participants receive benefits redeemable for specific foods such as fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods. SNAP benefits would no longer indirectly provide unhealthy food to participants.
However, since SNAP benefits rarely cover all of participants’ food needs, participants could still purchase unhealthy foods using their own resources. The Food and Nutrition Service notes (PDF) that participants could still choose to buy unhealthy foods since “restricting the use of food stamp benefits would change only one variable in the complex calculus that results in a more – or less – healthful diet.” In fact, a restrictive food benefit program would have little effect on consumer food choices since participants would “simply substitute one form of payment (cash) for another (food stamps) in order to purchase unallowable foods.” Policies that ban using SNAP benefits for specific foods, including soda or candy, “may or may not limit purchases of these foods”- consumers are also likely to find substitute products that, while not prohibited, are similar to unhealthy foods.
Additionally, SNAP would have to cover the costs related to determining which foods are SNAP-friendly as well as costs associated with enforcing these new program regulations. The Food and Nutrition Service foresees (PDF) “major implementation challenges, . . . concerns regarding the feasibility and rationale for the proposed restriction,” and overall increased program complexity and costs.
Moreover, is there justification in only targeting SNAP participants for dietary changes? As stated by FNS, SNAP participants are “less likely to consume sweet and salty snacks” and do not consume more soft drinks than people with higher incomes, so the grounds for “singling out low-income food stamp recipients and imposing unique restrictions on their food choices is not clear.” Given the challenges facing all Americans related to poor diet and nutrition choices, should policies that regulate food purchases be applicable for all Americans and not just target those on SNAP benefits? What do you think?