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Report: SNAP Barriers to Healthy Eating

Ilana Novick

The conversative blogosphere exploded last week with reports that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP, a.k.a food stamps) usage had grown by 7,223,000 during Obama's first term.

In contrast to the familiar complaints that this part of the safety net is too generous, and that America is becoming a nation of "takers," comes a new report from the National Academy of Sciences that finds that SNAP fails to truly cover the costs of groceries, and to provide access to healthy diets for the program's 47 million users. The report, which was comissioned by the USDA, found that the program doesn't account for common obstacles low-income, inner-city residents face when trying to feed their families. SNAP benefits, it finds, lag 16 months behind frequently rising food costs, and penalizes recipients with jobs by reducing the amounts of their payments, even if their jobs are low-paying enough to necessitate the maximum amount. In addition, the panel reports, the lack of supermarkets with fresh food in many low-income urban areas means recipients have to travel farther, and pay more in order to eat adequately.

The report also noted that SNAP currently doesn't take into account how Americans actually prepare food, assuming that families will buy basic staples and then make most of their foods from scratch. Of course, with many participants juggling jobs as well as families, they, like most working parents will need to ocassionally buy prepared or frozen foods in order to more efficiently feed their families, foods that the benefits can't cover. USDA also assumes families spend 30 percent of their incomes on food; most can afford to spend only 13 percent. 

As recent experiments relying on SNAP benefits by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and chef Mario Batali proved, living on SNAP benefits requires a lot of time, intense preparation and planning -- qualities that both public figures and low-income working families are low on. There are thousands of tiny decisions that can add up to what and how much a family will be able to eat or not, in any given month. Booker and Batali had trouble living on a SNAP budget for a week, with a definite ending point. Most of the families included in the NAS report deal with this as a way of life. 

Despite these findings, conservative commentators believe the problem lies not in the shortcomings of the SNAP program, but in the fact that it and other government benefits exist in the first place. A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal placed this rise in the context of a larger growth in government aid aside from SNAP benefits, including more Pell Grants, extended unemployment insurance, and Social Security disability payments, all of which contribute to a supposed government-funded incentive not to work.

According to the article, the recent drop in unemployment should have reduced and not increased the number of SNAP applications. On other hand, perhaps the jobs created could be better paid, full-time, or more stable -- all of which would also reduce the need to rely on additional support. Yes, the SNAP program shouldn't penalize those who do have jobs, but the benefits aren't great enough to make a potential employee choose food stamps over a new job. 

The USDA told Reuters it would take all of the reports findings into account to improve SNAP. Congress, meanwhile, has already passed a one-year extension on the Farm Bill that allocates money to SNAP in addition to agriculture. Republicans want $16 billion in cuts over the next ten years. Let's hope the NAS report's recommendations can be implemented before the cuts become reality.