How are anti-hunger groups blocking nutrition progress in SNAP?
EVERGREEN members Drs. Sara Bleich, Mary Gorski Findling, and Jason Block published a viewpoint in JAMA Pediatrics about the influence of anti-hunger groups on nutrition progress in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is the largest federal food assistance program in the U.S., and it provides approximately one in seven Americans with benefits to purchase food each month, with few restrictions on what can be purchased. SNAP has received strong support from national anti-hunger groups, who have played a critical role in maintaining Congressional support. However, these groups have also ignored or directly undermined key reforms to improve the diet quality of poor Americans. A key reason for this, Bleich et al. argue, is the symbiotic relationship between SNAP, anti-hunger groups, and corporate food retailers, which creates significant resistance to change. Specifically, the food industry is highly reliant on SNAP (benefits account for about 10 percent of all grocery spending), anti-hunger groups are largely responsible for distributing leftovers from food companies to charitable food organizations, and charitable food organizations receive significant amounts of money from corporate sponsors. The considerable dependence of charitable food organizations on donations, as well as the inclusion of corporate executives on the boards of many charitable food organizations, reduces incentives for anti-hunger groups to focus on the systemic social and economic factors which underlie hunger, and instead increases their focus on simply meeting immediate food needs.
What changes might improve nutrition progress in SNAP?
In this viewpoint, Drs. Bleich, Gorski Findling, and Block propose two major changes to shift the nutrition status quo. One is the establishment of nutrition standards for food donated from corporations to anti-hunger organizations, so that food-insecure populations are not limited to nutrition-poor food options. The other is restrictions on the use of SNAP benefits for purchasing sugary drinks, candy, and a narrow set of additional items in order to encourage healthier SNAP purchasing. Currently, anti-hunger groups have not supported these approaches, and have instead promoted nutrition education initiatives, which alone are not sufficient to improve dietary quality in low-income populations. However, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats support sugary drink and candy SNAP restrictions, and SNAP participants themselves support sugary drink restrictions, particularly if combined with fruit and vegetable incentives. The relationship between SNAP, the food industry, and anti-hunger groups has become a major obstacle for nutrition progress; however, with some changes, anti-hunger groups and the SNAP program could be leveraged to improve population health.
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Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) National Level Annual Summary: Participation and Costs, 1969-2017. (2018). United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/pd/SNAPsummary.pdf
Bleich, S. N., Gorski Findling, M. T., & Block, J. P. (2018). Antihunger groups are blocking nutrition progress in the supplemental nutrition assistance program. JAMA Pediatrics. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.3682