When members of the Senate Agriculture Committee gather at Arkansas State University on Friday for the second Farm Bill field hearing, strengthening nutrition security through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, ought to be at the top of lawmakers' list of priorities.
The covid-19 pandemic drove record high rates of food insecurity, and unfortunately those hardships have persisted into 2022. At its peak in December 2020, 30 million families could not afford enough food to eat. And while boosts to social safety net programs kept food insecurity rates in the U.S. constant between 2019 and 2020, rates increased among Black and Latine households. Even with a long-overdue SNAP benefit increase, unemployment is still above pre-pandemic levels, and grocery prices are 10 percent higher than they were last March.
Food insecurity is a major contributor to U.S. health expenditures, which have risen since 1970 from 6.9 percent to 17.7 percent. It is estimated that food-insecure adults pay $1,834 more in health expenditures--a cost that disproportionately burdens Black, Latine, and Indigenous households due to longstanding structural racism.
And if that's not enough for families to deal with, there are even more factors at play within our food system that are driving health disparities and making us sick. Food manufacturers spend $14 billion annually on advertising, the majority of which promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks. These promotions disproportionately target low-income communities and communities of color.
The USDA defines nutrition security as "all Americans having consistent access to the safe, healthy, affordable foods essential to optimal health and well-being." SNAP--the nation's largest federally funded nutrition assistance program--is well-positioned to help families experiencing food insecurity better access nutritious food.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it is that Congress is capable of making significant resources available to strengthen our country's food infrastructure. As Congress considers the 2023 Farm Bill, lawmakers have an opportunity to make a meaningful, long-term investment in nutrition security for families that have been struggling for far too long.
This past year, SNAP participant focus groups conducted by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance found that there is broad agreement that SNAP policy needs to do more to support healthy eating for those who use the program.
One SNAP participant pointed out how price affects the nutritional quality of their food purchases: "When you got to stretch [your benefits], you will buy the cheapest thing. It'd be bologna, hot dogs, you know, a lot of processed foods ... because you're trying to stretch your stamps out for the end of the month."
Based on feedback from SNAP participants in Arkansas and elsewhere, we call on Congress to make the following changes to SNAP:
Improve SNAP benefit adequacy by at minimum protecting the Thrifty Food Plan update and at best replacing it with the Low-Cost Food Plan as the basis for SNAP allotments.
Make purchasing fruits and vegetables easier by strengthening GusNIP fruit and vegetable incentives. Congress should increase funds to expand the program, remove grant-match requirements, and invest in strategies such as EBT integration to make the program more effective.
Increase access to SNAP grocery delivery by raising awareness for online grocery shopping options while simultaneously creating a technical assistance center to expand retailer participation. Waiving delivery and service fees for SNAP orders that exceed a minimum amount would lower the burden of food costs on shoppers and encourage more retailers to participate.
Improve shopping environments through re-examining the retailer application process, strengthening stocking standards to improve staple food availability, and reducing commercial marketing of foods that do not align with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Invest $100 million in projects that increase access to healthy food without increased stigma. Demonstration projects should test strategies such as marketing guidelines for retailers, including hot and prepared foods, exploring further benefit boosts, and testing incentives for nutritious food combined with disincentives for ultra-processed foods.
Coming on the heels of one of our nation's worst economic and health crises, and with an administration that is motivated to advance health equity, the 2023 Farm Bill is the perfect opportunity to put forth science-based and participant-informed changes to SNAP that will meaningfully improve nutrition security.
These are changes that should have been put in place long ago, but as the saying goes, "in the midst of every crisis lies a great opportunity." This is Congress' great opportunity. Let's hope they seize it.
Joelle Johnson is the campaign manager for Healthy Food Access at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and focuses on SNAP and the charitable food system. Kathy Webb is the CEO at Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, which works with food banks, hunger-relief agencies, volunteers and corporate partners to provide food, education and advocacy to Arkansas' hungry. She previously served in the Arkansas Legislature and co-founded the AR Legislative Hunger Caucus.