Food Stamps and Food Deserts: What’s the answer?

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vegetables, Image from MorguefileWhile there have been a few updates in the 47 years since Congress passed The Food Stamp Act, most within the program have been relatively small.   Recently the program did away with stamps in exchange for a convenient card loaded with benefits and to go along with this new look, updated it’s name to the Supplemental Food Nutrition Program or SNAP.  Still the SNAP benefits serve the same purpose as the food stamps before it: to help ensure that individuals are receiving enough sustenance to keep them from the brink of starvation.

However, these days a new hurdle in feeding those in need has developed.  In the past, food was easily found at the corner store, local grocery or maybe even at a local farm or dairy.  Things are different in today’s economy, where many stores like these have closed in favor of big box supermarkets that can provide for larger areas and less access to farms.  This means instead of just worrying about if their benefits will be enough to feed their family, recipients are now also struggling to find a place to purchase their food.

Not having readily available food stores, referred to as food deserts, has become a hot button topic popping up everywhere from food blogs all the way up to the First Lady.   According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”

Because of these so-called deserts, which are largely populated by people on assistance, many are forced to do their shopping at nearby convenience and/or liquor stores.   Though it seems somewhat surprising that places like this would even be able to accept the SNAP  benefits, it is relatively easy for these and similar locations to meet the specifications.  The Record Searchlight says, “To apply, a potential Supplemental Food Nutrition Program retailer has to show that more than half of the total dollar amount spent at a store, including purchases of food, gas and services, must come from the sale of “eligible staple foods” such as meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; or dairy products.”  This issue combined with the fact that the majority of states don’t have many restrictions on what can be purchased with the funds, has played a large part in the growing obesity rate among those enrolled in SNAP.

fast food, image from morguefileAn alternative solution to food deserts has been to allow the use of SNAP benefits to purchase fast food.   This has already been approved in states like Arizona, Michigan and parts of California.   New America Media has reported that the idea has even gained support from a group called Feeding America, comprised of executives from many large food companies.  This support is due to the fact that these food companies would see increased revenue due to to their stock in these restaurants.    But for patrons on SNAP benefits, having the money to buy French fries and chicken fingers doesn’t exactly make the growing obesity rate go down any more than buying foods from the local gas station.   However, according to WalletPop.com there is a valid reason for this approach.  The site says that, “The idea here is that many homeless SNAP recipients, as well as those with unstable living conditions — say, those who are sleeping on the couch of family or friends, or who are living in cramped and insufficient quarters — don’t have a place to prepare food.”  Essentially, the thought behind allowing SNAP use at fast food restaurants is that warm pre-prepared food,  is better than no food at all.  Fast food is often also easy to find in food deserts and they often offer nutritional options like salads.

As many are working towards simply providing those with SNAP benefits with any of food to keep them from starving, there is a bigger movement trying to make sure that the food is not just available, but also nutritious.  One such program, called Wholesome Wave, operates in California, Massachusetts and Connecticut.      The basis of this initiative is that farmer’s markets are set up in areas, most often in a food desert, and SNAP benefits are not only accepted for food purchases, but are actually doubled.  This means those using the benefits are able to get more food for the same price while simultaneously stimulating their local economy.  In an article from the Stamford Advocate it states that, “In 2008, Moody’s, the credit ratings and economic analysis provider, found that one food stamp dollar, when spent in a bodega or ordinary grocery store, created $1.73 in economic stimulus. The impact of the same food stamp dollar spent on regionally grown produce is still being studied by Wholesome Wave, but theories indicate that one SNAP dollar spent at a farmers’ market may create over $3 in local economic stimulus.”

Another attempt at providing healthy alternatives was recently announced by First Lady Michelle Obama.  During a news conference she stated that stores like Walgreens and Wal-Mart will soon open new locations to help decrease the food deserts.  The California Endowment reports that the California FreshWorks Fund will loan $200 million to establish stores that will provide healthy foods (eligible for SNAP benefits) in food deserts in California as well as stimulate the economies in which they reside.

After this announcement, some have come out against the partnership with big corporations instead of supporting smaller, local retailers.  However, SFWeekly.com puts the issue into a bit of a different perspective, “We think of Wal-Mart the same way we do of Starbucks: When we have a choice, we stop at locally owned cafes, but the chain has made it possible to get a decent cup of coffee in rural and suburban cities across the nation.”  The article goes on to add,“Sure, it’d be great to see independently run stores open in all those places, but it’s more important to find cabbage, oranges, and strawberries.”

Currently all of these groups, with ideas that cover a vast spectrum, are working to improve the situation of those who receive SNAP benefits and/or live in food deserts.  It may turn out that one option is better than another or with more observation the answer may be that combining several options is the solution.  In the end, only time will tell what will be both financially and nutritionally successful.

Please share your comments below on the food stamp (SNAP) and food desert issue and your suggestions on how you think the current situation could be improved.

July 2014 Update: Below are resources passed along by HumanityCampaign.org:

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