Talk about preposterous.
Activists have hatched a scheme to “reform” USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as food stamps—not to encourage participants to practice more responsible shopping for healthier foods, such as the ones that comprise the department’s nutritional guidelines. Instead, they’re floating a thinly disguised effort to get animal foods banned from the program.
For all the wrong reasons.
Currently, SNAP serves more than 46 million Americans, according to data from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, with demand on the rise due to ongoing recession. The program provides an average of about $35 a week per person to buy fruits, vegetables, breads and cereals, meat, fish, poultry and dairy products at qualifying supermarkets, food stores, and even farmers' markets. In some areas, restaurants are authorized to accept SNAP benefits from qualified homeless, elderly or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.
In other words, the primary purpose of the program, which first started more than 50 years ago under President John F. Kennedy, by the way, is to help those in need buy food to feed their families.
But several so-called public interest and consumer protection groups have jumped onto the reform bandwagon, including the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—a wholly owned subsidiary of PETA—which is urging people to contact their Member of Congress with the following message:
“Right now, SNAP encourages grocers to stock processed meats, cheeses, sodas, and sugary snacks by placing on them the same value as healthful foods. SNAP should limit food eligibility to the ‘Healthy Basics,’ such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. The [current] system perpetuates the ‘food desert’ problem by encouraging grocers to stock foods that are the most processed and have the longest shelf life. Healthy Basics would incentivize grocers to stock healthy foods.
“[Reform] would improve the health of SNAP participants in the short-term and cut long-term health care costs by reducing the prevalence of diet-related disease in low-income populations. Because an individual can get more nutrition on a Healthy Basics diet, we could lower the cap on benefits for SNAP and save taxpayers nearly $255 billion over 10 years.”
Deconstructing the document
Their entire statement is self-serving—at best—as well as wildly inaccurate. Let’s examine PCRM’s manifesto point by point.
“SNAP encourages the consumption of fatty meats and cheeses, sugary snacks, and sodas by giving them the same value as healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.”
It’s not like program officials aren’t aware that SNAP participants—along with the rest of America!—could improve the nutritional quality of their grocery purchases. To that end, USDA has authorized $20 million for its Health Incentives Pilot to evaluate whether Point of Sale (P.O.S.) programs can motivate recipients to purchase healthful foods. And if it works, it ought to be rolled out to the entire country.
“The [current] system perpetuates the ‘food desert’ problem by encouraging grocers to stock foods that are the most processed and have the longest shelf life. Healthy Basics would incentivize grocers to stock healthy foods.”
Grocers stock foods for three reasons: To maximize the profitability of shelf and case space; to support their brand positioning; and to offer specific products known to be favored by their most loyal clientele. Few—if any—plan their merchandising mix on the basis of SNAP recipients’ alleged preferences.
“[Reform] would improve the health of SNAP participants . . . cut long-term health care costs by reducing the prevalence of diet-related disease in low-income populations . . . and save taxpayers nearly $255 billion over 10 years.”
Since total SNAP expenditures in 2010 were about $65 billion, a reduction of about $25 billion in annual program costs would be massive and could only be accomplished by slashing participation and benefits. It’s ridiculous to argue that fruits and vegetables could provide “so much more nutrition” than the broader range of choices USDA recommends.
About as ridiculous as imagining that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has anything to do with medical issues.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.