By CHRISTINA BADARACCO
The $867 billion Farm Bill squeaked through our polarized Congress at the end of last year, though it was nearly derailed by arguments over work requirements for SNAP recipients. That debate was tabled after the USDA crafted a compromise, but it is sure to continue at the state level and in the next round of debates. While Republicans tend to favor work requirements and Democrats tend to oppose them, here’s something both sides can agree on: SNAP should help Americans eat healthy food.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as food stamps—provides financial resources to buy food and nutrition education to some 40 million low-income Americans. Costing taxpayers almost $80 billion per year, the program serves Americans across the spectrum of ages, ethnicities, and zip codes. Simultaneously, we reached a deficit of almost $800 billion in 2018. So how can we ensure this at-risk population of Americans can access nutritious food and better health outcomes within the confines of our current resources?
Studies have proven time and again how participation in SNAP reduces rates of poverty and food insecurity. And the program has improved substantially in recent years, with recipients now using debit-style cards to buy groceries and receiving increased benefits at thousands of farmers markets across the country.
Despite these clear benefits, SNAP dollars often don’t support healthy diets. In fact, a 2015 study determined that SNAP participants had poorer diets, with more empty calories and less fresh produce, than income-eligible non-participants. In 2017, another study found that participants have an increased risk of death due to diet-related disease than non-participants. The authors reported that the discrepancy might be partly caused by individuals who think they have high risk of poor health and/or struggle to pay medical bills are more likely to put in the effort to enroll in and redeem SNAP benefits. A recent survey of Americans across the country showed that foods purchased using SNAP benefits were higher in calories and unhealthy components, like processed meat and sweeteners, than those purchased by non-participants of the same income level.
Last week House Republicans voted to cut benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, slashing $39 billion in benefits over the next ten years in a vote of 217 to 210. All members of the Democratic caucus voted against the bill, which would affect 4 million people.
In June, fiscal conservatives squashed the Farm Bill that would have cut spending by $20 billion over ten years after determining the decrease was too meager. This new bill is their response to that. If successful, half of the cuts will put a stop to food aid after three months to people between 18 and 50 with no minors living with them if they are unable to find work, a move that makes little sense.
Poverty and health are inextricably linked, and food security plays a central role in this. Not only does poverty affect a family’s ability to buy food, it prevents them from buying healthy food. In the United States, lower income individuals are more likely to be obese, putting a strain on the healthcare system. Currently, beneficiaries of SNAP are eligible for SNAP-Ed, a nutrition education program designed to promote healthy eating on a limited budget. It is unclear how these cuts will affect SNAP-Ed.
African-Americans, no strangers to health inequalities, will be disproportionately affected by this change if successful. A new study shows that 90 percent of African-Americans benefitted from food stamps at one point or another in their lives. One in four African-American households faces food insecurity, and make up about 23% of all SNAP recipients.
Q: What’s going on with the farm bill? Any chance for improving it?
A: I wish your question had an easier answer. The farm bill has to be American special-interest politics at its worst.
As Stacy Finz has been reporting in the main news and Business sections of The Chronicle, the failure of the recent super-deficit reduction plan also brought an end to a secret committee process for writing a new farm bill. Now Congress must follow its usual legislative procedures. The farm bill is again open for debate.
Advocacy is much in order. The farm bill is so enormous, covers so many programs, costs so much money and is so deeply irrational that no one brain – certainly not mine – can make sense of the whole thing.
It is all trees, no forest. The current bill, passed in 2008, is 663 pages of mind-numbing details about programs – hundreds of them – each with its own constituency and lobbyists.
The farm bill was designed originally to protect farmers against weather and other risks. But it grew piecemeal to include programs dealing with matters such as conservation, forestry, biofuels, organic production and international food aid.