As Congress begins its deliberations on this year’s farm bill, it’s time to pay more attention to the “N” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Launched as a pilot program by President John F. Kennedy and expanded nationwide by President Richard Nixon, the food stamps program — now SNAP — has enjoyed bipartisan support over its nearly 60-year history. From its initial goals of supporting farm incomes and ensuring low-income families did not face hunger, it has evolved into an effective anti-poverty program. That evolution continues today with a focus on nutrition.
The program, unique when compared to other countries, successfully provides food security to over 40 million Americans today. Researchers estimate that households who participate in SNAP are 12 percent to 28 percent less likely to experience very low food security than similar nonparticipating households.
But for many of today’s participants, the problem is not a lack of calories but the type of calories they consume. Unhealthy calories are contributing to many chronic conditions from obesity to diabetes and heart disease. And with tens of millions of Medicare and Medicaid recipients receiving food assistance, public health care expenditures are increasing.
In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress responded to the worsening obesity epidemic by acknowledging the need to improve the program’s focus on nutrition. Besides the name change to SNAP, the bill created a new Healthy Incentives Pilot program to provide recipients with incentives to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was expanded in the 2014 Farm Bill and became the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program, or FINI.
Nearly a year ago, to accelerate putting the “N” in SNAP, the Bipartisan Policy Center launched a high-level SNAP Task Force, headed by two former secretaries of Agriculture — Republican Ann Veneman and Democrat Dan Glickman — along with former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon. They released their recommendations last week.
To prioritize nutrition in SNAP, their first recommendation was to make “diet quality” a core objective and to instruct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to focus on the nutrition of SNAP recipients. Currently, USDA — and state administrators — focus their efforts on minimizing food insecurity and maximizing program integrity through fraud and abuse reduction. While these important goals need to be retained, they should be supplemented with an increased focus on how SNAP is affecting participants’ nutrition — an aspect the program currently lacks.
In addition, the task force recommended eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages from the program, combined with continued support for incentives to consume fresh fruits and vegetables. There is clear evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages to adverse health outcomes, and research shows that when these two dietary approaches are combined, the health benefits are magnified.
Nothing in the task force’s recommendations precludes individuals from purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages with their own resources. The task force simply believes that federal subsidies (which were once available to tobacco farmers) should not be used for beverages detrimental to an individual’s health and, more broadly, to taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid costs.
Because these two policies alone will not solve the problem of poor diets, USDA should also test a range of other comprehensive, multipronged interventions to improve SNAP diets. Nutrition promotion research is being conducted across the country, and we need a mechanism for testing interventions within SNAP and expanding viable ones.
In addition, we should continue strengthening retailer standards, which would improve the food environment for all shoppers. Public health researchers and behavioral economists are devising promising strategies to nudge shoppers toward healthier options, and USDA should explore incorporating them into SNAP.
USDA and state administrators would also benefit from better access to information on how SNAP dollars are being spent. Currently, the department does not know exactly what products are being purchased with the $60 billion in annual SNAP benefits. Access to purchase data is limited to participant surveys or samples of point-of-sale data purchased from specific retailers. This lack of consistent, nationwide information limits the ability of USDA, states and local governments to target, tailor and measure the success of efforts to improve diets.
SNAP is a crucial assistance program, and its ability to alleviate food insecurity must be preserved. Moving forward, the program should be strengthened to better promote nutrition among recipients. In this farm bill, Congress should put more emphasis on the “N” in SNAP.
Hannah Martin is a BPC senior policy analyst and registered dietitian. She served as lead staff member to the BPC SNAP Task Force.
G. William Hoagland is a BPC senior vice president, helping direct and manage fiscal, health, and economic policy analyses. He previously served as the Food and Nutrition Service administrator and as staff director at the Senate Budget Committee.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.