February 14, 2018—Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, comments on the proposed overhaul of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) announced on February 12.
Why is SNAP an important safety net program for low-income people in the U.S.?
SNAP provides critical assistance to nearly one in seven Americans, about half of whom are children. Applicants’ resources need to be very low to qualify, so without SNAP many people would go hungry or need to sacrifice other essential supports such as medications.
One of the proposed changes from the Trump administration would replace about half of many SNAP recipients’ benefits with a food box containing “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruit and vegetables,” but no fresh fruits and vegetables. How might this change impact the diets of low-income people?
It is hard to know how this would impact individuals; it might improve the diets of some, but others might not be able to use the foods that are provided. Many participants are lactose intolerant or allergic to peanut butter, so the milk and peanut butter could be wasted. Also, whether the breakfast cereals are laden with sugar or the pasta is made with white flour is not clear. If there were unhealthy items in the box, people wanting to make healthier choices might be forced to consume foods that undermine their health. Whether the boxes would be accessible to all, and if all participants have the facilities to prepare these foods is also a question. Some flexibility is important.
Research from the Harvard Chan Department of Nutrition has shown that SNAP recipients spend a high percentage of their benefits on unhealthy purchases such as sugar-sweetened beverages and convenience foods. Is some kind of reform needed for the program?
SNAP is an essential, critical program, but it also needs reform as it is failing to improve the nutritional status of recipients, who are on average more overweight and have more cardiovascular risk factors than non-SNAP participants with the same income level. We would hope that a program costing about $70 billion per year would improve the nutrition and health of participants. Our national survey has shown that a large percentage of Americans support SNAP at the current level or higher, but they also want the money to be used for foods that promote, not undermine, the health of participants. The majority of SNAP participants also agree that benefits should not be used for soda or junk food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, runs another supplemental nutrition program, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), that is excellent and well-received. It includes provisions for healthy foods, and education and support to genuinely improve the well-being of participants.
While SNAP needs to be reformed, the current proposal from the administration seems to be more aimed at cutting costs than helping participants. A major change like this should be carefully pilot tested and evaluated before being rolled out nationally to ensure that changes enhance, not harm, the well-being of participants.