Consumer advocates want to make SNAP healthier

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, APRIL 23, 2014 -- Advocates for local and healthy foods are hoping new farm bill funding will create a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that encourages healthier purchases for the more than 46 million people in the program. During the Consumer Federation of America's National Food Policy Conference in Washington yesterday, a panel on the “Future of SNAP” focused on pilot programs that could encourage healthier purchases.

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Over five years, USDA will provide $100 million in grants through the new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program.

Oran Hesterman, CEO of the Fair Food Network, hopes the program will provide grants for initiatives modeled after his organization's “Double Up Food Bucks” program, which provides a one-to-one match for SNAP participants to buy fruits and vegetables.

Under the program, for every $10 in SNAP benefits customers spend on fruits and vegetables they receive a reward card with $10 toward their next purchase of fruits or vegetables. According to the Fair Food Network, 88 percent of customers report buying more fruits and vegetables and 57 percent report buying less “junk food.”

The program began with five farmers' markets in Detroit in 2009 and now includes more than 100 sites nationwide. Three grocery stores are also participating after a national pilot launched in 2013. 

Hesterman said the farm bill funding “will help take this from model to mainstream.” He wants to bring the program into more grocery stores, where people buy most of their food.

However, the farm bill provision must still go through the rulemaking process. The incentive program does not provide specifics on the amount of money matched or the type of retailer that can benefit from the SNAP incentives. 

Jim O'Hara, director of health promotion policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, discussed his organization's efforts to make changes to SNAP through limiting purchases of junk food, specifically sugar-sweetened beverages. He wants a pilot program to test the feasibility of SNAP dollars that exclude unhealthy items like soda.

‘The reality is there are foods being purchased which are nutritionally worthless,” he said. “Change is going to come to the SNAP program. A number of states proposed making changes in past few years.”

O'Hara said Delaware will consider legislation this year to remove the ability to purchase junk food with SNAP benefits. The Delaware Nutritional Improvement Act requires the state Department of Health and Social Services to draft a list of nutritious, SNAP-approved foods.

USDA restricts SNAP purchases for alcohol, tobacco and prepared food, but allows candy, ice cream, soda and other products often thought of as junk food.

Several states, including California, New Jersey and Illinois, have considered bills to restrict the types of food eligible SNAP purchases, but none have been successful.

 

“The real question for us is how we chart a positive course forward, and do so in a way that protects and enhances the SNAP program,” O'Hara said. “It's why we need a pilot project, so we can figure out how to do it.”

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