by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: SNAP

Jan 11 2017

What SNAP recipients buy at one big retail grocery

Advocates have been pressing USDA for years to (1) get data on what SNAP recipients buy with their benefits, and (2) permit pilot studies of what happens to purchases of soft drinks if you exclude them from the benefit package.

In 2012, I did a post on the 2012 SNAP to Health report.  Its recommendations:

  1.  Protect SNAP benefits.
  2.  Collect data

Lots of people have been trying to get USDA to produce data.  Anahad O’Connor, the author of the New York Times account, filed a Freedom of Information request with USDA.  In response, USDA sent him a report it had commissioned from IMPAQ, a “beltway bandit” consulting firm.  His story is here (I’m quoted).

Now we have a partial answer.  IMPAQ analyzed data from one large, unnamed retailer (could it be Walmart?).

Here’s USDA’s summary of the study (and here’s the complete study).

The USDA says the study shows that SNAP recipients buy pretty much the same amounts of what everyone else buys.

Summary category data show that both SNAP and non-SNAP households focused their spending in a relatively small number of similar food item categories, reflecting similar food choices. The top five summary categories totaled about half of the expenditures for SNAP households and non-SNAP households (50 versus 47 percent). Commodity-level data (in the full report) show that both SNAP and non-SNAP households made choices that may not be fully consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

My reading of the report suggests that in this study, SNAP recipients spent more of a combination of their SNAP benefits and their own private money on:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Hamburger
  • Frozen meals
  • Salty snacks
  • Lunch meats
  • Flavored milk
  • Kids cereals
  • Frozen French fries
  • Convenience foods in general
  • Infant formula

The report does not discuss why these differences might exist but it would be interesting to find out.

If sugar-sweetened beverages really comprise 9.5% of purchases, that comes to $6 billion a year.

That’s why taking them off the list of eligible foods is worth a try.

Recent SNAP news

The USDA is sponsoring a pilot project to allow SNAP participants to buy foods online from certain retailers, including Amazon in three states, Fresh Direct in New York, and various grocery chains in other states.

The idea is to make it easier for SNAP participants to get access to healthier foods.

I hope the USDA is keeping score on what gets bought online, and whether foods cost more.  The benefits are not allowed to be used for delivery costs.

Jan 4 2017

SNAP to Health launches new website, resources

I was a member of the commission that developed the SNAP to Health report.  We recommended getting more information about what foods SNAP participants purchase with their benefits and conducting pilot studies or taking sugary drinks out of the eligible items.

Now SNAP to Health has redesigned its website as a a virtual town hall for information and resources regarding food insecurity, obesity prevention, and the current state of federal food assistance programs.  It has also added sections for WIC resources.

Here’s the press release about the new site.

And here’s one more item about SNAP

Pushing for drug testing of SNAP recipients: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is still trying to do this in his state.  According to Politico

Wisconsin U.S. District Court Judge Charles Clevert threw out a lawsuit the state had filed against USDA in July 2015 that sought to prevent the department from blocking the state from implementing a drug-testing requirement for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Clevert said Wisconsin filed suit too soon, because it did not allow USDA to formally reject the state’s new requirement. Normally, states request waivers from USDA when they want to add their own SNAP requirements, but Wisconsin filed its suit preemptively — leading Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to suggest shortly after the suit was filed that it was a political move by Walker, since he was a GOP candidate in the 2016 presidential race. (Walker ended his campaign in September 2015.)

“The reason why [Walker] hasn’t requested a waiver is because he knows it’s not going to be granted because the law is pretty clear,” Vilsack said at the time.

This is a bad idea.  I hope he forgets it.

Oct 5 2016

Some thoughts about SNAP: declining enrollments and legal issues

Let’s start with the USDA’s latest figures on SNAP participation.  Enrollment is down by a couple of million which could be good news (people have jobs that pay enough to make them ineligible) or bad news (elibility runs out).

The USDA issued a report in 2001 explaining the reasons.

 

As the report explains:

The large decrease in the number of food stamp participants is due to both a decrease in the number eligible for food stamps and a decrease in the rate at which eligible persons participate. The decrease in the participation rate played a slightly more important role, explaining 56 percent of the fall in the number of participants. The decrease in the number of eligible persons explains 44 percent of the fall in the number of participants.

Next, let’s look at the article in the New York Times on attempts to improve the quality of foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

There have been manymanymany calls for the food stamp program to promote more healthful diets. Many states have requested waivers allowing for restrictions on what benefits can buy (some items, like alcohol, tobacco and household supplies, are already prohibited). Further restrictions have been rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program.

The article is based on a study trying incentives for buying fruits and vegetables, restrictions on junk foods, and a combination of both.   The study concluded:

A food benefit program that pairs incentives for purchasing more fruits and vegetables with restrictions on the purchase of less nutritious foods may reduce energy intake and improve the nutritional quality of the diet of participants compared with a program that does not include incentives or restrictions.

the study was accompanied by an editorial calling for a trial of mixed incentives and restrictions.

But, as Daniel Bowman Simon tells me, the law only allows the USDA to do incentives.  By law, it cannot do additional exclusions.  This is because Congress says what retailers can and cannot sell to SNAP recipients:

As written in 7 U.S. Code § 2012, section (k)

“Food” means (1) any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption….

It looks to me as though excluding soft drinks, for example, would require Congress—not the USDA—to change this definition or let states do so.

Daniel wonders why USDA doesn’t make this clear.  Me too.

I’m told that three states have requested waivers and that the USDA is considering them.  How?  I don’t know, but stay tuned.

NOTE:  Several readers filed corrections on this post and I thank them.  I have revised it accordingly.

Sep 4 2015

Weekend reading (and cooking): Eating Well on $4 a Day

Leanne Brown.  Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 / Day.  Workman, 2015.

Leanne Brown is a graduate of our food studies program at New York University who, while in graduate school, became concerned about the plight of SNAP (food stamp) recipients who must feed their families on an average of $4 per day.

She wrote this book for them, first as a class project, then as an online gift, free for the taking.

It was downloaded 700,000 times.

Then she went to a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish the book.  At some point Workman picked it up.

It’s won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and a place for Leanne in Forbes 30 under 30 for 2015.

The book has truly delicious recipes.  It starts with tips useful for anyone on a food budget.

I’m proud of what she’s accomplished.  The book is beautifully photographed, the recipes are terrific, and every time a copy is sold, Workman will donate another one to someone who needs it.