Wednesday, June 5, 2013

This blog is 3/3 in a series related to our most recent roundtable on healthy eating habits in the SNAP program. Read the first and second blog as well. To see the roundtable or get additional information, please click here.

The Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) received considerable attention in the 2012 elections and is again receiving attention in the current congressional debate over the Farm Bill.  On one side, SNAP is portrayed as a “budget busting” welfare program, whose participants purchase candy and snacks with taxpayer money.  On the other side, SNAP is viewed as a basic safety net program for millions of low-income families who otherwise would go without basic food support.  The reality is that SNAP is both the premier provider of basic food security to low-income families in need of food assistance as well as a program that can be modified and tailored to become a catalyst to support healthy eating and prevent obesity.

Photo of tabele full of peppersFew would dispute that transforming SNAP into a program that supports healthy eating is a good thing.  Such a transformation can take many forms.  One is the policy route, placing restrictions on the purchase of “unhealthy” foods by SNAP recipients.  Advocates of this approach argue that taxpayers should not be supporting the purchase of snack and junk foods with SNAP benefits.  Others cite the success with the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which only allows the purchase of certain healthy foods for pregnant women, infants, and children.  Proposals to widen such restrictions are popping up in state legislatures across the country.

On the other side, advocates for low-income populations have cited equity and fairness in placing restrictions on purchasing certain foods.  Such restrictions would likely result in a huge outcry (and lobbying effort) from industries affected by these restrictions.  There are, however, pragmatic problems with this approach.  First, there is little agreement on where to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy foods.  While some would restrict purchase of such items as potato chips and soft drinks, others argue that high starch (and often low cost) pastas, high-fat dairy products, and so-called “boxed” meals are the problem.  In addition, giving states the power to create an approved food list would likely be a nightmare for retailers to enforce and potentially would result in some foods being deemed “healthy” in one state yet banned in another.  Second, even if there were restrictions on what could be purchased with SNAP benefits, nothing would prevent a person from using other resources to purchase so-called unhealthy foods.  While proposed restrictions may respond to some political problems, they are not likely to address the continuing problem of obesity.

A far better approach is to provide people with the resources and motivation to make healthy food choices.  We may not agree on what foods are unhealthy, but we do agree on which foods are part of a healthy diet.  Diets high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein are recognized by nutrition experts as the solid basis for healthy eating.  Research tells us that encouraging the purchase and consumption of key healthy foods can motivate the selection of healthy foods beyond the experience of using SNAP dollars.  It can also transform the family meal experience into a lifetime of healthy food choices. 

In our opinion, the three best approaches to transforming SNAP into a program focused on promoting healthy food choices include:

  1. Continue to support nutrition education for SNAP participants, but focus on making healthy food choices.  SNAP has long supported nutrition education for its clients, but recent studies indicate that much of the nutrition education focused on lecturing clients about their “bad” eating habits.  Newer, “learner-centered” nutrition education, combined with motivational counseling and strong, multimedia nutrition messages, appears to motivate change more effectively.  Two years ago, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids act transformed the old SNAP Education program into an obesity prevention grant, and the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) required a coordinated, system-wide approach to “reverse the current national environment that promotes caloric overconsumption, discourages physical activity, and includes concurrent dramatic increases in the rates of overweight and obesity and poor health outcomes.”  Congress should give this program a chance to make an impact and continue to support its full funding.
  2. Support programs that provide financial incentives to promote healthy food choices.  At a recent hearing in Maine on a proposal to limit SNAP participant food choices, one SNAP client testified, “I want my family to eat healthy, but fruits and vegetables are so expensive!  I have to consider the impact of spending so much of my benefit on expensive items on my overall family food budget.  If SNAP would provide us with more financial support to purchase fruits and vegetables, we would do so!”  To support families that must make the difficult choice to balance more expensive (and healthy) food choices with managing a limited family food budget.  Programs like the “Double Up Food Bucks” increases financial support so families can purchase fruits and vegetables.  We know from recent research that this program affects family food choices and increases SNAP purchases of fruits and vegetables.  This program, and others like it, is currently available in only a few states and is limited by the financial resources.  Congress should fund such programs so more families across the country can purchase fruits and vegetables.
  3. Support consistent messaging across all Federal programs addressing the obesity epidemic.  Many programs, spread across many governmental agencies, focus on obesity prevention and promoting healthy eating.  Often these programs, which are funded through categorical appropriations, are required by their funding source to focus exclusively on the needs of their target population.  Each program designs its own messages as well as its own approach to delivering these messages.  However, we know that being exposed to well-focused, consistent messages that reinforce particular behaviors creates behavior change most effectively.  While these programs are encouraged to work together, their funding streams often restrict the state government and service provider’s ability to create a unified approach to messaging.  It is time for Congress to authorize Federal agencies so states can implement a consolidated approach to messaging without the worry of violating individual program rules.  Such an approach should focus on low-income populations as a whole rather than as a specific segment.

With the Farm Bill now up for consideration, it is time for Congress to support practical, proven approaches that will motivate SNAP participants to make healthy food choices.  There have been several proposals, most voted down at this point, to reduce funding for programs that promote healthy eating.  Instead of cutting back on support or allowing states to restrict food choices, Congress should be expanding evidence-based approaches that make a difference.  If we back away now from programs that have proven to be effective, we will all be paying through increased medical costs and social service support systems.  It is time to move forward with programs that work.

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