In Defense of Food Stamps

While SNAP purchasing data are not widely available to all of those who would love access, the USDA has reported that vegetables, fruits, grain products, meat, and meat alternatives account for most of the money value of food used by SNAP households. In fact, these food groups account for nearly three-quarters of their at-home food spending. Further, while Ms. Simon's report points out that $4 billion is spent annually on soft drinks by SNAP participants, it fails to point out that milk and water are the number one and two purchased beverages, respectively, measured in units (which is more significant than $). These beverage-purchasing trends are reflective of the U.S. population at large. So, remind me -- why does the report recommend institutionalizing restrictions on American's that already feel marginalized in our society?

The report states that one in seven Americans is currently receiving benefits; however, what is not stated is that an estimated 30 percent of those eligible for SNAP are not accessing benefits. This is particularly pronounced for the "working poor." At 60 percent, the participation rate was lower than the rate for all eligible persons (72 percent) in fiscal year 2009. In no state was the rate for the working poor significantly higher than the rate for all eligible people. One of the top five reasons cited for non-participation is the stigma attached to participation. SNAP is a safety net program and we have millions of Americans falling through the cracks because of the perception attached to the program.

Although big business benefits from SNAP, according to the USDA the trickle down impacts of SNAP are also significant in this country. In the USDA's Building a Healthier America report, the agency concludes that for every $1 in new SNAP benefits up to $1.80 is generated in economic activity. Big business surely benefits but it also benefits their employees, the truck drivers delivering the food, plants making the food, and the farmer who produces the food. The USDA estimates that for every $1 billion increase in SNAP benefits, 18,000 full-time equivalent jobs, including 3,000 farm jobs, are maintained and/or created. I didn't see any of this referenced in Ms. Simon's report.

What I would really love to see? I would love to see the large retailers being more creative in coming up with ways to enroll the millions of individuals, particularly children and elderly, who are eligible for benefits but currently not participating. Additionally, I would like to see retailers create mechanisms for re-enrollment reminders. I would love to see families, children, and the elderly who are struggling to become more food secure not have to make trade-offs every day between food and other necessities.

Regarding the report's recommendations, I agree that "Congress should not cut SNAP benefits in this time of extreme need" -- but our agreement stops there. I would like to better understand the cost involved to collect product-specific data, and to monitor, analyze and make that data available. Once the cost is clear, the next steps are understanding who will pay for the retailers' (especially small ones) reprogramming of their point-of-sale systems; who besides banks will transact the benefits (should we go back to paper and pencil?); who will actually pay for these recommendations--will the costs will be tacked on to existing program costs, or passed on to consumers by retailers in the form of increased food costs; whether the recommendations will affect the programs' efficiencies and scale; and, most importantly, what may be the possible unintended economic consequences to our country and to SNAP participants.

I don't know the answers to those questions. But I do to the big one: Do companies benefit? The answer is yes. Do they benefit more than the millions of families and individuals who are lifted out of poverty and able to feed themselves and their families? Absolutely not.


Presented by

Lisa Sutherland, PhD, is the president of LA Sutherland & Associates, which provides food and nutrition science, communication and policy strategic counsel to private and public organizations.She is an adjunct professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth College. More

 She received her doctoral degree in public health nutrition from the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill.

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