by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: SNAP

Apr 24 2017

USDA asks Maine for more information–lot more–about its SNAP waiver request

In recent years, the USDA has received requests from several cities and states to allow pilot projects to remove sodas from items that can be purchased with SNAP benefit cards.

The agency has always found reasons to deny the requests, as it did for one from New York City in 2011.

The latest “denial” is to a request from the state of Maine for a pilot project to eliminate soft drinks and candy.  I put denial in quotes because it’s not actually a denial.   It’s a request for more information.  USDA wants to know:

  • Whether Maine’s previous responses to previous queries still apply.
  • What would happen without this restriction?
  • Whether there will be a pre- and post-implementation data collection on purchases before and after the pilot.
  • How Maine will correct for biases due to self-reporting of purchase data.
  • Why Maine isn’t planning to get agreement from retailers to provide data.
  • If Maine plans to provide a reasonable and legal time frame.
  • Whether Maine plans to submit a new request for a waiver to cover use of SNAP-ED funds.
  • What the evidence base is for using SNAP-ED funds as Maine plans.
  • The full costs of this effort.

If Maine is serious about wanting to do this, it will have a lot more work to do.  USDA might as well have issued another denial.

Feb 22 2017

Taking sodas out of SNAP: the debate

I’m out of the country for a few weeks (México) and missed the House hearing on whether SNAP-eligible food items should continue to include sugary beverages.

From what I gather, most witnesses opposed any change in the program, with one from the American Enterprise Institute the lone holdout.

As I discussed in the chapter on SNAP in Soda PoliticsI continue to think that taking sugar-sweetened beverages out of the package is a no brainer.

  • They are sugars and water and have no nutritional value.
  • Tons of research links their consumption to a higher risk for obesity and its consequences.
  • SNAP recipients spend a lot of taxpayer money on them.
  • SNAP recipients may well have worse diets and higher proportions of chronic disease than equally poor people who do not get SNAP benefits.
  • Surveys say that SNAP recipients would not mind this change.
  • SNAP recipients can always buy sodas with their own cash.

I recognize that not everyone sees things this way.  I suspect that people opposed to this idea are worried that any change to SNAP will leave it vulnerable to cuts, and they could well be right.

Here are their arguments:

Politico provides some sound bites on the topic:

  • “Food surveillance violates the basic principles of this great country.” — Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.)
  • “What can we do to incentivize rather than punish?” — Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.)
  • “If you want to do a pilot program, I’m happy to co-sponsor one at the White House. I’m worried about our president’s eating habits.” — Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Ma.)

The state of Maine, however, has just renewed its request to USDA to remove sugar-sweetened beverages and candy from SNAP-eligible items.

Maine believes the purchase of sugar sweetened beverages and candy is detrimental to the health of the SNAP population, and is antithetical to the purpose of the SNAP program.

SNAP is supposed to be a nutrition program, no?  Nutrition is about a lot more than calories (and this from someone who wrote a book about calories).

Feb 7 2017

What’s up with SNAP?  An unsystematic roundup

I’ve been collecting miscellaneous items about SNAP, particularly those related to USDA’s promised release of information about the amount of SNAP benefits spent at specific retail stores.  Here’s the first:

The USDA alerted retailers that this information would be forthcoming (information about the legal challenges is here).  A few weeks ago, the USDA said:

You may have been contacted by email, voicemail and/or text because you are a current or former SNAP authorized retailer, who participated between 2005 and the present, and FNS received a request for records that will disclose each of your store’s individual annual SNAP sales amounts.  This information will be released promptly (i.e., approximately 12 calendar days from the email, voicemail, and/or text) to the public as the result of a court order.

But then the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) filed a motion to stop the release.  Why?  ” FMI seeks to preserve the confidentiality of sensitive data about the performance of its members’ stores.”

The court agreed to hear the appeal.

The USDA says it won’t release the information until the court case is resolved.

Why do you suppose the FMI does not want anyone to know how much money they get from SNAP purchases?

SNAP advocates have called for release of this information for years.  The delays are frustrating.

We will know more in a couple of weeks.

Other items

  • The Arkansas House of Representatives passed a bill to limit SNAP purchases to healthy foods.
  • Economists at Brown University have produced a new study demonstrating that SNAP benefits raise household spending on food more than would an equivalent cash benefit.  Brown’s press release explains it.
  • This morning’s Politico Pro Agriculture says that “House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) will call a hearing on SNAP purchases., citing the USDA report that sweetened beverages are the number two product class purchased.
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.