Food Access and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by Bailey Houghtaling

Have you heard of SNAP? Or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? The SNAP used to be called food stamps and, in the U.S., this federal nutrition assistance program provides low-income Americans with supplemental income for household food and beverage purchases. We know that a lack of access to safe and nutritious foods causes a host of issues for populations, especially children. Did you know that children make up an enormous portion of persons that benefit from SNAP?  As a society we decided (through policy) to do something about hunger and currently support around 42 million adults and children each month to access foods for their household.

Bailey is back in somewhat of a sequel to her earlier post on processed food as seen through a public nutrition lens. In the interim she has started her new job on the faculty of Nutrition and Food Sciences at LSU. This article is the second in a series of four on areas of low food access following a review of three books on food deserts. It also relates to an earlier post by Jeffrey Dorfman on the best way to distribute food aid

Originally the food stamp program was formed to allocate excess crops to citizens suffering through the Great Depression. Today’s program mirrors these beginnings, meaning that the program focuses on improving household access to foods to combat hunger, rather than to improve health. However, our issues have changed as a society. Yes, hunger or a lack of food security is still a major U.S. issue, although poor diets are linked to more death and disability than commonly ‘bad’ public health problems like smoking and unsafe sex. Should SNAP update its standards?

Many support changes, such as to the types of foods and beverages participants can purchase with SNAP benefits as a way to promote health, similar to the model used in USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC participants are pregnant or breastfeeding women and children under the age of 5 that can use WIC benefits to purchase foods and beverages aligned with public health guidelines. Changes to this program have been a bit easier to initiate, mainly because the goal of the program has always been to improve health outcomes among vulnerable populations, rather than to minimize hunger.

grocery cart full of foods and beverages
A full shopping cart. Photo by Tom Montville.

SNAP participants tend to have worse diets than most other populations. However, to be fair few Americans meet dietary recommendations. Yet a main pillar of the program is SNAP participants’ freedom to choose how to use their benefits at stores authorized to accept SNAP. A supply-side intervention by the USDA was a proposed enhancement to the current SNAP-authorized stocking standards. For example, SNAP stores must stock a certain minimum variety of fresh and shelf-stable products across a number of food groups and this rule would require more inventory to improve access to healthy foods. Currently the SNAP authorization standards are easy to meet, as evidenced by the large number of nontraditional formats that accept SNAP, like dollar, drug, and convenience stores.

Would improving healthy food access improve anything? Maybe. But major consequences could include retailers dropping out of SNAP due to lack of fit with their business model…subsequently reducing food access for SNAP participants. Retailers could also lose money and generate more food waste, for example, as purchases are perceived unlikely (especially in smaller stores with limited resources) without efforts to increase consumer demand. Even though some of the less traditional formats are associated with the poorest food and beverage purchases when compared with dietary guidance standards, they are important access locations for SNAP and other low-income consumers. So, if this is not the answer, what is?

In truth, a mix of voluntary, education, and policy measures are likely required, expanding beyond the SNAP program that support a ‘Culture of Health’ as advocated for by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Individuals need the skills and the knowledge to execute healthy living patterns, however, as a society much, much more emphasis is needed on social, environmental, and policy determinants of health. SNAP could help drive some of these system changes if the value of the program weren’t continually threatened. However, these concepts expand beyond SNAP. Given our pressing societal challenges, all individuals, rather than certain groups, should have healthy foods that are available to them, affordable, conveniently chosen, and desirable. This goal will not be achieved without bipartisan support, public-private engagements, regulations and accountability, and perhaps most importantly, an underlying value for public health agenda.

Next week: Challenges in handling perishable foods in small stores that sell food on the side

photo of the author, Bailey HoughtalingBailey (@HoughtalingPhD) is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist on the faculty of Louisiana State University’s School of Nutrition and Food Sciences as an Assistant Professor. She is a recent PhD Graduate from Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise. Bailey’s research broadly focuses on dietary choice behaviors, understudied populations and environments, food security, and the influence of multiple social-ecological factors on dietary choice. She has a special interest in conducting research with key decision-makers to improve capacity for healthy and sustainable choices in rural food environments.


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