One of my personal favorite food policy advocates, Michele Simon, recently released an in-depth report on food stamps. (There’s also an infographic.) As someone who admittedly isn’t as well-versed as I should be in this part of the farm bill, I was eager to learn more. I was surprised by much of what I read.
Did you know that…food stamps represent the largest chunk of the farm bill?
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which cost $78 billion in 2011, represented 68% of the 2008 farm bill and currently makes up 80% of the $1 trillion farm bill that has been passed by the Senate. One in seven Americans are on food stamps, and nearly half of those are children.
…food stamps are currently in danger?
The version of the farm bill that was passed in the Senate included a $4.5 billion reduction over ten years. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, wants a $16 billion cut. Many groups, including the Environmental Working Group, are outraged that the subsidies given to large farmers are remaining while these low-income benefits are decreasing.
…there are few restrictions on what can be bought with food stamps? (Though some states have tried.)
People on food stamps cannot use them to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or non-food items. But beyond that, there are no restrictions. The program was founded in 1964 to help those in need while also taking care of agricultural surpluses, which were at the time fruits and vegetables. I suppose that now the purpose of the program unintentionally remains the same, though our agricultural surpluses are now mainly corn, soy, and wheat—which are the backbones of unhealthy processed foods and sugary beverages.
Compare this program to WIC, which services low-income women who are pregnant and/or have children under five. According to their website, “WIC foods include infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, and canned fish. Soy-based beverages, tofu, fruits and vegetables, baby foods, whole-wheat bread, and other whole-grain options were recently added to better meet the nutritional needs of WIC participants.” Why do we care about the health of these populations but not the general population?
At least nine states, most publicly New York, have attempted to place restrictions on these purchases. In 2010, they asked for a waiver from the UDSA to try restrictions for two years. Simon argues (and I agree) that states should be given the freedom to experiment with what foods are included.
…there is very little transparency?
There is no public data available on how SNAP dollars are spent. The data is out there since retailers can easily track what people buy with food stamps, but it’s not available. Farm subsidy information is public, so why isn’t this information? There’s even a specific SNAP education program, but how can they effective education people if we don’t know what they’re purchasing? And as Simon says (completely unintentional pun), “Why should only private entities with financial interest in SNAP have access to information that significantly impacts public health?”
…powerful industries benefit from SNAP?
The biggest industries that benefit from SNAP are major grocery stores (10% of all grocery store purchases are made with SNAP dollars), big food manufacturers (who undoubtedly profit from what is being bought), and most surprisingly, banks. Yes, banks. States set up contracts with banks in order to administer food stamps through EBT (electronic benefit transfer), in which people have their benefits transferred to a card that can be easily used at places that accept food stamps. According to the USDA, administrative costs of EBT for SNAP totaled $314 million in 2010. Those costs are split between USDA and the states.
J.P. Morgan, which is the bank of choice for these contracts in half of the states, has a five-year, $83 million contract in Florida and a seven-year, $126 million contract in New York. Both contracts are expected to far exceed the initial predicted amounts.
…there’s a bill in Congress to address these issues?
Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, introduced the Fresh Regional Eating for Schools and Health Act in 2011. The FRESH Act would “authorize pilot programs that will assist SNAP beneficiaries in meeting federal nutrition guidelines and promote innovative local projects” and “require retail stores with gross annual SNAP sales in excess of $1 million to report food purchased by program recipients to the Department of Agriculture.” The bill has been introduced but has not yet made it to the committee stage.
I highly recommend reading the original report (you can read Simon’s recommendations on p. 23) or the articles from some of the various news agencies that have picked up this story (including Reuters, Time, and the San Francisco Chronicle).