Why Congress Should Put the "Nutrition" Back in Nutrition Assistance

September 7, 2017 | 11:23 am
Photo: USDA
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Despite messages of economic populism, the Trump administration and its Congressional enablers have not been kind to the millions of Americans who struggle to make ends meet. From attacks on affordable health insurance and a living wage to tax cuts for the wealthy and worker protection rollbacks, they’ve made clear where their allegiance lies.

Now, the nation’s leading food assistance program for low-income individuals and families is on the chopping block. As with so many other policy proposals, that would not just be cruel but also short-sighted, new research suggests.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program is an effective response to poverty and food insecurity, lifting an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children—and even stimulating the economy during our most recent economic downturn. Still, the White House and some House Republicans appear eager to cut benefits and enact new (but largely unnecessary) work requirements.

In response, a new study published today in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior shows that rather than cutting the SNAP program, Congress would be wise to increase its investment to better promote healthy eating among recipients. That’s because the study’s authors found that current benefit levels fall short of supporting a healthy diet, including the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. And that’s not just bad for SNAP recipients, but for all of us, as it leads to greater costs from preventable diet-related diseases down the line.

Updating the costs of a MyPlate diet

The authors (full disclosure: they’re UCS senior economist Kranti Mulik and former UCS health analyst Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, now an assistant professor at North Carolina State University) sought to fill an important knowledge gap, informing policy makers of the true cost of healthy eating for individuals and families today. In 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculated the cost of various eating plans based on its “food pyramid” (the federal dietary guidelines before 2010). The USDA has used its resulting “Thrifty Food Plan” to determine SNAP benefit levels ever since, but it’s now out of date.

The present study is an important update in two ways. First, it calculates the cost of following today’s federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, represented visually by the USDA’s MyPlate graphic, in which half of a person’s daily “plate” consists of fruits and vegetables. And second, Mulik and Haynes-Maslow considered the cost of labor to prepare food, an important but previously overlooked consideration.

Using the most current retail price data available from the USDA, Mulik and Haynes-Maslow documented the full monthly cost of following MyPlate, creating several scenarios in which individuals and families could meet that guideline with fresh, frozen, and/or canned produce. Then, they compared the cost of the various healthful eating scenarios to current SNAP monthly benefit levels.

The upshot? The benefits don’t even come close to covering the costs.

Of course, the very name of the program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—indicates that it isn’t meant to fully cover recipients’ monthly food budgets. The study design took that into account, assuming a “benefit reduction rate” of 20 percent—the percentage of food costs that SNAP participants pay for themselves, according to previous research.

So how much additional SNAP support would struggling families need in order to eat a consistently nutritious diet? The authors found that a hypothetical household (two adults, one child 8-11 years old, and another child 12-17 years old) would need to incur an additional cost of $627 per month to eat a healthy diet in accordance with MyPlate.

This is a significant shortfall. And it’s an important finding, because researchers who study SNAP already know that recipients’ monthly benefits frequently run out before the end of each month. In a UCS policy brief published earlier this year, we noted: “Data indicate that household food bills frequently exceed the USDA Thrifty Food Plan standard costs used to determine benefit amounts, which may reflect inaccurate assumptions about geographic price variation, food preparation time, households’ ability to access food outlets, and the percentage of household income spent on food.”

The “N” is for “nutrition”

SNAP is intended to do more than just feed people. While many Americans fail the healthy eating test—fewer than 1 in 10 Americans meets recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake—it can be particularly difficult for low-income households, which not only lack financial resources, but also face more barriers to accessing healthy foods. And although half of all Americans now live with a diet-related chronic disease, the burden of poor health disproportionately affects low-income populations and communities of color.

If SNAP is truly to be a “nutrition” program, it should do more to facilitate good nutrition for participants and their families.

Raising SNAP benefits would be good for us all…and voters support it

Healthier eating would deliver significant benefits for that population—less obesity and diet-related illness, and fewer lost work and school days. But it would also come with a payoff for the nation’s health broadly and for taxpayer-funded healthcare programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

A 2013 UCS analysis found that increasing Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables could save more than 100,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs from cardiovascular disease (CVD) each year. And a recent study from researchers at Tufts University and colleagues in the UK found that a 30 percent fruit and vegetable subsidy targeting SNAP recipients would avert more than 35,000 CVD deaths by 2030, and would reduce disparities in CVD rates between SNAP recipients and the general population.

Moreover, a recent survey of more than 7,000 American voters conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland found that large bipartisan majorities (78-81 percent) supported substantial increases SNAP benefits, while 9 out of 10 (including 8 in 10 Republicans) favored providing discounts on fruit and vegetables bought with SNAP benefits. (Respondents also agreed with proposals to restrict the use of SNAP benefits to purchase sugary foods and beverages.)

So while the White House and members of Congress seek to balance budgets on the backs of the most vulnerable among us, their constituents support policies that make it easier for low-income Americans to eat a healthy diet. With the next five-year Farm Bill putting the question of SNAP funding back on the table, Congress and the White House should do just that.