The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps) provides nutrition assistance to more than 40 million Americans. But SNAP currently isn’t set up to provide the good nutrition they need. In a new op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, musician and author Moby, who received food stamps as a child, proposes a solution: “A better approach would be to focus the program on cheap, healthy foods like beans, vegetables, fruit and whole grains. This would save money and keep recipients out of the doctor’s office.”
He’s right. Last year, my colleagues and I published a series of articles on reforming SNAP in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Our findings show that focusing SNAP on healthful foods could actually save a lot of money and provide more food at the same time. With a few tweaks, the program could be just what the doctor ordered.
1. Focus on healthy staples. Currently SNAP pays retailers to provide soda, string cheese, hot dogs, steak, and other products that are keeping SNAP recipients overweight, compared with nonrecipients. These unhealthful foods are part of the reason that diabetes risk is 70% higher among low-income Americans. Instead, the foods in SNAP should be healthful: vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains. These are the most nutritious and least expensive foods in the store, and they happen to be the very foods that are in short supply on American shelves. A focus on healthy staples would save an estimated $11 billion per year.
What kinds of meals would those healthy staples turn into? A breakfast of oatmeal topped with strawberries, or maybe blueberry pancakes or fresh cantaloupe. Lunch could be a hearty bean chili, chickpea salad, vegetable fajitas, a bean burrito, or vegetable soup. Dinner could be angel hair pasta topped with mushrooms, chunky vegetables, and tomato sauce, black beans and rice with salsa, or veggie pizza. And all of these foods – tasty as they may be – are simple and cheap.
Harvard University researchers developed a nutrition rating system, called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index. With that rating system, economically disadvantaged people in the United States currently have an average score of 33 out of a possible 110. Those in the highest socioeconomic category have a current score of 41. But a program focusing on healthy vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes would score 75. In other words, we could improve participants’ nutrition and health, and save money at the same time.
2. Integrate with WIC. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is already focused on a simple list of foods that women and children need. It is continually updated with health in mind and does not include steak, pork chops, chicken, sodas, energy drinks, candy, or the other less-than-healthful products that are still in SNAP. Why have two programs? Merge them.
Some mean-spirited critics hold that poor people will insist on junk food and will complain if the government does not provide it. That is insulting. I would ask these critics simply to look at WIC. The WIC program does not include junk food, and no one complains. When people need help, healthful food is a blessing. And getting the junk food out of SNAP and the healthy staples in – that’s just what the doctor ordered.
Photo from here, with thanks.