In a journal article titled Impact and Ethics of Excluding Sweetened Beverages From the SNAP Program, the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, reveals what sales an average household on food stamps has made (Barnhill). Anne Barnhill is a Greenwall Fellow in Bioethics and Health Policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore, Maryland. According to Barnhill, the main aim of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is to boost low-income families’ food, nutrition, and fitness (Barnhill). However, the findings of the report prepared by IMPAQ International, an LLC for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in November 2016 shows that the most purchased item is soft drinks. These accounted for five percent of the dollars spent on food (Garasky, Steven, Mbwana, Romualdo, Tenaglio and Roy 25). Similarly, by examining SNAP household expenditures from The United States Department of Agriculture, data shows that recipients purchased more sugar-sweetened beverages, candy or sweet baked goods than non-SNAP households (Garasky et al., 34). By buying foods that contain empty calories, people are spending on items with no real nutrition something they will require not much later from their foods. Similarly, senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology told Harvard Magazine that, “The price of eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts averages around $1.50 per day more than a less-healthy diet (Shaw).” Based on findings from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Although healthier diets did cost more, the price difference of $1.50 was relatively less than expected (Shaw). On the other hand, the long-term cost of diet-related diseases such as obesity is significantly more than the difference of healthier food(Shaw). In spite of the small price difference, to SNAP recipients on a fixed monthly budget, this may not be an option. For instance, beneficiaries who live in a food desert seem to be affected by not only geographical but also financial barriers in what may be taken for granted by some of us and that is access to nutritious foods. When budget cuts are made to the program, it can influence the ability of consumer choices. After all, food insecurities are prevalent in low-income households for the reason that, if food stamps were to be taken away, there would be a trade-off from an obesity epidemic to an underweight epidemic. Thus to those who rely on food stamps, restricting food choices is much more efficient in solving the problem of ensuring a healthy national diet (Carroll). Food assistance programs (SNAP) therefore, need to be reformed with stronger requirements to purchase. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, one in seven Americans need food assistance (CDC). Which brings this argument to light: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients should not be allowed to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, and fast foods due to the rise in obesity, medical costs, and fast food availability.
The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, defines the eligible foods that can be purchased by SNAP recipients. The United States Department of Agriculture situates that the act restricts the following items from being purchased by SNAP households: “alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot food and any food sold for on-premises consumption (Garasky et al., 2). Non-food items such as pet foods, soaps, paper products, medicines and vitamins, household supplies, grooming items, and cosmetics,” are also ineligible for purchase with SNAP benefits (Barnhill). Similarly, there should be limitations to define unhealthy foods as a luxury that should be restricted. However, it is challenging to classify what food or beverages should be considered luxuries as most items have a nutritional label. Deciding on what items from least to most nutritional in value could be a solution to what purchases need to be eliminated.
Besides, a lack of a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food correlates to obesity. The program allows its recipients an allowance of food stipend once a month depending on the income and size of the household in the form of an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card (Barnhill). However, a vast majority of people who receive food stamps do in fact have some other source of income; the food stamps are meant to fulfill a supplemental function for nutrition, and not intended to cover the expenses of an entire diet of a given household (Barnhill). The relationship between food insecurities and health outcomes has become a study in obesity and diet-related health problems, which has been a serious public concern in the United States. The federal government classifies a household as food secure if all family members have, at all times, access to enough food for an active, healthy life (Fifield). One factor that influences what items are purchased can stem from the psychological effects of food insecurities. Depending on the family size and income on the program, the monthly benefits vary from a different household. A food insecure household may purchase unhealthier pantry foods that have a longer expiration date rather than fresh produce. For example, when a food insecure individual receives benefits for the month the recipient may purchase foods that would not be eaten immediately to stretch the fixed budget. Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, states that “long-term effects show that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants tend to be more obese than those who don’t.” (Carroll).
Although the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helped to alleviate financial burdens and America’s hunger problems, it also created a new problem in the nation, which is obesity. Obese or obesity should be taken more seriously since more than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults are obese (CDC). Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States placing kids at risk of poor health. Despite recent declines in the prevalence of obesity amongst pre-school-aged children, obesity amongst all children is still too high (CDC).
Food stamp recipients have also taken advantage of discounted nutritious groceries to purchase less expensive foods that are unhealthy to the body. Shenkin is part of the Goldman School of Dental Medicine. Shenkin et al. states that “Serious health problems, the most evident being obesity, and gross dental hygiene, is cropping up, in particular among the poor” (Shenkin). Although most healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 50 (without children) have their SNAP benefits limited to a 3-month period, participants who become dependent on the program for extended periods experience health problems such as obesity (USDA 2016). Charles L. Baum is an Economic Professor at Tennessee State University, in his article The Effects of Food Stamps on Obesity discusses in-depth the macroeconomic effects of the Food Stamp Program on the prevalence of obesity using 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data. Baum introduces that food stamps have a significant impact on elevating obesity. As a result, this has seen to increased concerns over obesity as it has come to be “associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer, reduced quality of life, and death in the U.S. and worldwide, (CDC)”
Instituting restrictions on food assistance programs is a much more efficient way of solving the obesity problem. Since over one-third of the United States suffers from obesity (CDC). SNAP solves America’s hunger problem, therefore, eliminating or reducing funds will affect food insecure households and food desert participants leading them to purchase less expensive foods with no nutritional value which will cost them more in medical visits to the doctor in the future. According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was a hundred and forty-seven billion in 2008; the medical costs for people who are obese was $1,429 higher than those of a healthy weight.” (Finkelstein, G. Trogdon, W. Cohen and Dietz 1). In addition, Lauren Hersch Nicholas, of the University of Michigan, Social Research, states that “participation in the Food Stamp Program may impact health outcomes for diabetics by directly altering the type or amount of food consumption (L.Hersch).” This is true where benefits are used to purchase a higher quality diet than would otherwise be available. Nonetheless, the solution to saving money on medical costs is difficult due to the underlying factors of obesity.
Quality foods that consist of higher nutrients may not be readily available to recipients who live in a food desert. In a dissertation on food deserts and public planning, Andrea Sparks writes that “We have been able to document in a statistical fashion that zip codes with a larger public assistance load have fewer stores per capita in this twenty-one big cities which account for approximately thirty percent of the U.S. population (Andrea 2).” This means that thirty percent of the population live in areas with limited access to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. In Quitman County, Mississippi for example, some people have to drive twenty miles one way to get to a grocery store with fresh food. Additionally, those on public assistance will either have to travel farther or pay more for their groceries at convenience stores or other outlets that often charge a premium for fresh produce and other healthy dietary staples.
Some studies show that food insecure households or food desert areas can affect participant’s purchases. For instance, members who live in a food desert having limited access to transportation to stores such as supermarkets can have unhealthy food purchases. Sherrie Tussler, an executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, claims that “Nobody should tell us what we can eat and what we can’t eat.” In her article, Poor People Need Access, Dignity, Choices; she states that allowing food stamp participants to purchase fast foods is an effective method to reduce food desert areas. She states that “there should be dignity in how people received their food and people should have choices” (Tussler). Through the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) machine that uses the same device as the credit and debit card, this is somehow achieved, and recipients are saved from the embarrassment of the old-fashioned coupons.
There should, however, be menu restrictions to what SNAP recipients can purchase. For example, in Michigan, the list of fast food chains includes, but not limited to, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and Subway. By examining the approved list of fast food restaurants, one item available on all the menu choices were sugar-sweetened beverages. Besides, low- income households would make unhealthy food choices to consume fast foods meals daily rather than to eat healthier. Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, the food columnists for The New York Times and others, have said, however, that eating at a fast-food restaurant is not cheaper in the long run, and it’s certainly not healthier than buying groceries and cooking at home (Tussler). The alternative to purchasing fast foods in food desert areas to alleviate hunger is ineffective. It is a short term solution that is costlier in the long run. Other alternatives such as growing produce with seeds in the comfort of one’s home are more cost efficient and will reduce obesity. SNAP was created to promote a healthier lifestyle while relieving families from financial burdens. When participants are purchasing unhealthy foods to provide meals for their families, the program fails, and adjustments need to be done to correct these diets.
On the other hand, Guthrie et al. who is associated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, argues that restrictions on unhealthy purchases is not an effective solution to the obesity issue, there are other methods to be considered such as educating and funding (Guthrie, Lin, Ver Ploeg, Frazao 3). Her article argues that the impact of food restriction will depend on the amount of banned foods consumed by food stamp recipients. Instead of restricting choice, another policy suggestion is to encourage positive choices through targeting food stamp benefits towards healthier but under-consumed foods. However, one solution cannot solve the problems of poor diet and obesity among American children and families, which is why USDA and its program partners continue to seek out and implement evidence-based solutions to encourage SNAP participants to purchase and consume healthy foods. In addition, The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a study providing clear evidence that well-designed nutrition education programs can lead to healthier food choices by participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Guthrie et al., 3). This provides evidence that there is a better solution to reducing obesity in SNAP participants. Beth who is part of an advocacy group that opposes the restrictions in Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice says as an example that, traditional cooking in the state uses many unhealthy ingredients, such as bacon fat. She insists that people need to be taught how to cook with healthier ingredients(Fifield).
However, just educating Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients will not change unhealthy eating habits. Instead, restricting the purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, and fast foods will provide an efficient method to increase a healthier lifestyle. Many public health officials have supported the idea of banning the purchases of unhealthy foods for years now, stating that the program that was intended to supplement nutrition has instead led to bad eating habits and seen to the worsening of the obesity epidemic. Furthermore, trying to accomplish change through educating recipients is complicated and time-consuming. An effective solution would be to ban the purchase of beverages with little to no nutritional value.
In the final analysis, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be reformed by education and more funding invested on healthier foods. Likewise, banning unhealthy diets should be effected to reduce obesity and accruing medical costs. Changing the program as soon as possible would help the future generations live a healthier lifestyle.
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