The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is under the microscope lately. People are debating about what foods and beverages should be eligible for SNAP benefits, and which businesses should be eligible to accept SNAP benefits. USDA recently updated the website page where it describes the foods eligible for SNAP. It’s not entirely surprising that SNAP is attracting more scrutiny. Use of SNAP has increased by about 50 percent during the recession to over 45 million Americans in July, 2011.
Political leaders, public health officials and private industry are all weighing in. The city of New York requested a waiver that would allow it to prohibit use of SNAP benefits to purchase most sweetened beverages. Such purchases are allowed under current rules. USDA denied that request but the debate is sure to continue. At the other end of the spectrum, Yum! Brands (parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, among others) seeks to take advantage of a little-used provision that authorizes states to allow use of SNAP benefits by disabled, homeless and elderly persons in order to purchase hot prepared foods at restaurants, including fast food restaurants. Advocates from the public health and anti-hunger communities have sometimes taken different positions on these issues.
Meanwhile, another pilot project is quietly moving forward. Hampden County, Massachusetts is poised to launch implementation of the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) any day now. As the name suggests, HIP provides an incentive, in the form of additional SNAP benefits, for the purchase of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
In 2009, a coalition of national anti-hunger organizations laid out 9 essential steps to end childhood hunger by 2015. Step 8 is to ensure that children [and all people] have not only enough food, but enough nutritious food.
Can we end hunger and malnutrition and eliminate obesity and diet-related disease? Are there ideas on which the public health and anti-hunger communities can agree?
Nutrition assistance programs provide one potential means to encourage consumption of healthy foods among an increasingly large number of Americans. Innovation at the state and local level can build support for change. We won’t get there with just a snap of our fingers, but we can move in the right direction if we bring a spirit of creativity and collaboration.
This information was developed by Jill Krueger, senior attorney for the Network for Public Health Law – National Coordinating Center at the Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.