Food stamps and farmers markets: Why the USDA’s latest move isn’t enough

The food industry as a whole is often shrouded with criticism regarding the high price of fresh produce, condemning the nation's poorest to a diet of cheap, processed, and nutritionally-lacking products. This accusation is not without reason — a few apples cost the same amount as twenty small bags of potato chips. For a parent trying to pack multiple school lunches or provide meals for an entire family, it is nearly impossible to purchase wholesome and healthy options without breaking the bank.

Unfortunately, this is the reality for the almost 42 million Americans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. For a family of four, the maximum SNAP allotment for an entire month is $649 or $163 per week. In practice, the average SNAP allotment is much lower, at $504 per month. This may seem high, but relatively expensive items like baby food, dairy products, and red meat can quickly drive the available funds down to dangerously low levels.

These budgetary restrictions often mean that affordable meals lack the nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. One study showed that although SNAP recipients do not necessarily eat less calories than a higher-income individual, they have a lower quality diet that strays far from a whole slew of federally-recommended guidelines.  Those receiving SNAP benefits are also more likely to consume higher amounts of sugar and smaller quantities of fruits and vegetables--a dangerous combination that can lead to a self-reinforcing cycle of sugar addiction.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the SNAP program, has recently distributed $31 million in grant money intended to promote healthy eating amongst recipients. Some of these, including the Florida-based Fresh Access Bucks program, double the value of allocated food dollars when used to purchase fresh produce at any farmers market within the state. Other programs like the Buy One Fresh/Get One Local initiative grant an equivalent coupon for every SNAP dollar spent on a fresh fruits and vegetables.

All of these grants receive their funding through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program, and each project must explicitly increase the sale of fruits and vegetables to SNAP users by "providing incentives at the point of purchase." These restrictions impart a de facto requirement that   local, SNAP-authorized farmers markets are abundant and widespread — a stipulation that is unattainable in many regions of the country.

According to the USDA's website, there are 3,616 farmers markets nationwide that currently accept SNAP benefits. While this is a nearly five-fold increase since 2008, it would be irresponsible to use the current numbers as an acceptable stopping point. The distribution of SNAP-authorized farmers markets is geographically imbalanced. California alone contains 505 of these markets, yet Alaska has just 16. This isn't just a matter of state size either — Hawaii has 56 locations providing affordable fruits and vegetables, and even Washington D.C. contains 35 different options. Wyoming has just 10, and North Dakota enters single digits with a mere seven SNAP-authorized farmers markets.

Even in well-stocked states like California, the mere presence of a farmers market is not enough. Many of the USDA-sponsored programs are contingent on SNAP recipients living within a reasonable distance of a market — an assumption with obvious limitations. Public transportation may be expensive or non-existent in some areas, and the prices of produce may fluctuate with annual weather conditions, varying costs of living, or even between vendors. Many farmers markets are also seasonal and lack the space or ability to operate indoors, especially in states with particularly harsh winters or dry summers. In this way, the current USDA framework inadvertently punishes the very citizens that it is trying to help.

With these limitations in mind, the rapid increase in SNAP-authorized farmers markets should be seen as a stepping stone, and not an endpoint, for the USDA's endeavor. There are several other potential changes that may also help prioritize nutrition within SNAP that would not be limited by geography, climate, or other factors that vary across the nation.

For example, the large amount of unhealthy sweetened beverages purchased by SNAP-households has caused many think tanks and research groups to advocate for a ban on the use of SNAP dollars to buy sodas and other similar drinks. Other proposed solutions center around the administrative reorganization of the USDA and related agencies -- specifically regarding the pending merger between the Food & Nutrition Service (FNS) and the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion (CNPP). FNS is currently responsible for overseeing SNAP, but could be positively aided by the CNPP’s research and education campaigns regarding dietary advice.

While promising, these suggestions only begin to scratch the surface of the potential modifications to SNAP. The USDA is well-intentioned in its desire to improve access to fresh food for the nation’s poorest, but with the country’s obesity epidemic still out of control, small steps like these are not enough. After all, the self-proclaimed mission of the SNAP program is in part to "improve the nutritional status of its participants" — an area with much room for improvement.

A modified version of this article appears on www.nutripol.org.