Summer is a time of abundance for farmers of fresh fruits and vegetables! Yet many low-income and food insecure individuals have diets more likely to contain potato chips than carrots. We know these kinds of “junk food” diets make these individuals vulnerable to obesity and obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. What are the barriers to sharing the healthy harvest to a wider circle of individuals from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds?
Federal Government’s Response to Food Insecurity: Food Stamps
In the United States, our government’s response to American citizens’ food insecurity has been with food stamps. Piloted since 1939, the program became permanent in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act. In 2008, the federal food stamps program managed by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was renamed “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” or SNAP.
In 2015, a family of four was eligible for benefits if they received less than $2,050 gross monthly income. To calculate the benefits allotment for this family of four, the net monthly income of the household is multiplied by 0.3, and then subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size.
SNAP benefits are calculated expecting the family to spend about 30 percent of their income on food. This family of four might receive SNAP benefits of up to $649 per month. SNAP recipients can receive their benefits on discreet EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards that act just like debit cards. In 2014, the SNAP program disseminated $74.2 billion to an average 46.5 milion individually on a monthly basis, with children making up 44 percent of all SNAP participants (Gray, 2015 ‘Characteristics of Supplmenetal Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2014).
SNAP benefits can be used to purchase a wide range of “foods for the household to eat” but cannot be used for items such as liquor, tobacco, and non-food items such as soaps, paper products, household supplies and medicines. Interestingly, throughout the history of the food stamp program there has been support for placing restrictions of the types of food available for purchase with SNAP benefits. Specifically, “luxury and non-nutritious” foods have come under the most criticism but the government has concluded that it would be “administratively costly and burdensome” to preclude sales of those items. As such, beneficiaries can purchase seafood, steak, soft drinks, candy, and bakery items with their SNAP benefits.
In addition to SNAP, mothers of infants and children up to the age of five may receive additional support through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infacts and Children (WIC). This program was specifically designed to decrease premature births by supplementing the diets of pregnant women. WIC pays for a limited list of items such as milk, eggs, and baby formula. Often recipients will receive both SNAP and WIC benefits.
Innovative Programs Leverage Federal Benefits for Healthier Eating
A successful model of leveraging federal SNAP benefits is the Double Up Bucks Program, first piloted at Takoma Park Farmers Market in Maryland. Fair Food Network of Michigan formalized and established a replicable program called “Double Up Food Bucks Program” which has spread to sites across the country. This healthy food incentive program benefits families with limited resources, local farmers, and underserved community economies. Double Up Food Bucks Program offers individuals with SNAP benefits a one-to-one match to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables, stretching their food dollars further. As of August 2016, Double Up programs are now available in 9 states and have reached over 1 million SNAP recipients.
These innovative programs are very promising, and we hope that on-the-ground implementation in more diverse states will increase our knowledge of how to further improve the diets of food insecure Americans with fresh, local whole fruits and vegetables.
Image 1. Fresh vegetables at Takoma Park Farmers Market, site of one of the first “Double Up Bucks” Programs in the country, leveraging existing federal SNAP benefits to increase sale of fresh local fruits and vegetables (photo: Audrey Swanenberg).