by Marion Nestle
Jul 9 2013

New York City’s SNAP Education campaign: Cut the Junk

New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), the agency that administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food assistance and food emergency programs, just launched the second year of its “Cut the Junk” initiative.

The campaign features:

  • A booklet.   This explains healthy eating and gives cost comparisons.  It will be distributed at 35 farmers’ markets with SNAP programs
  • Tricycle-based billboard visits to low-income neighborhoods
  • A weekly texting service with tips and recipes (join by texting ‘NOJUNK’ to short code 877877)
  • A You Tube video

The Commissioner of HRA, Robert Doar, says:

good nutrition can both save lives and taxpayer dollars…Cut the Junk presents a common-sense approach to eating healthier with less expensive alternatives than take out and fast food.  Each tip in the booklet can help stretch a family’s food budget or food stamp benefits further. We are very proud to come directly to people’s neighborhoods to start talking about healthy food as an affordable reality for New Yorkers.

HRA did the campaign with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

I think the video works well.  The booklet?  Not so much.

I wish both said more about sodas.  “Grab an apple instead of a soda” doesn’t quite do it.

The video connects viewers with city food assistance resources, and that’s a plus.

Will this campaign encourage low-income residents to choose healthier diets?  I hope an evaluation is in progress.

What to say about the booklet?  Take a look and tell me what you think, please.

  • Kelan

    The campaign and booklet are a huge step in the right direction. I do like the suggestions of replacements for fast food items, but it’s my understanding that SNAP dollars can’t be used for fast food. I currently work for a federal program called EFNEP. Our program teaches basic nutrition lessons and cooking skills to undeserved populations. Many families lack the basic cooking skills to provide healthy options for their families. I wish that SNAP required mandatory nutrition education and at least offered cooking assistance or referrals to EFNEP (it’s entirely free to participants.

    My second complaint with the booklet is that it really doesn’t address the whole picture of how to budget SNAP dollars over an entire month. As part of a grad school assignment, we had to plan a 3-day menu that met the Dietary Guidelines and stayed under $1.50 per day. It was extremely challenging and required a lot of work. I think it would be beneficial to show families an entire sample week of meals ( a month’s worth would be phenomenal). And if anyone is curious, none of the groups in my class were able to meet 100% of the Dietary Guidelines while staying within budget.

  • The price comparisons always irk me: first of all, where in NYC do you find a chicken breast for 99 cents? Even at 4 oz, that’s less than $4/lb for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. A more reasonable price estimate would be double that. Secondly, when people are food insecure, feeling full is what they want: are they really trying to compare a 4-oz chicken breast sandwich with a jumbo cheeseburger? Yes, it’s the healthier option, but it will also disappear in 3 bites and leave people hungry for more (and reinforces the myth that “healthy” food is tasteless and unsatisfying.)

    As soon as you set up a comparison with a fast-food favorite, you set yourself up to fail. Who doesn’t love a cheeseburger? And when they say “this chicken sandwich is just as good, but healthier and cheaper” – as soon as the chicken sandwich is not “just as good”, everything else in the statement becomes untrustworthy as well. Rather than try to encourage people to substitute pallid, watered-down versions of their fast-food favorites, I’d much rather see delicious, filling and satisfying recipes that focus on beans & legumes, whole grain rice & grains, plenty of vegetables and limited meat. While the booklet pays lip service to these ideas, the menu items they show are primarily chicken, chicken and more chicken.

  • Abalone

    None of these programs will ever be helpful as long as the underlying definition of junk food is off base. The key message double-dips on the fat and ignores the worst culprit, sugar. The take-home message should be improved to read “…fried, sugary, and fast food…” Avocados are not junk; fruit juice, OTOH, more junk than not. Producing an effective program that continues to point people in the wrong direction is worse than doing nothing at all. My perspective is that of a victim of the original pyramid message that had me targeting eleven servings of bread a day. Enough!

  • Beachfinn

    I would have agree with the above posts, that food comparisons like that will get you nowhere. A sample week or even a month, as a web link would be much better idea. detailing serving sizes and how to cook once a week larger amounts of “seed food” that can be easily turned into snacks, lunches and dinners. Think of cooking whole chickens, fish meats, that can be turned into soups, salads etc. If you happen to love cheese burgers just plainly substituting them for a tasteless chicken breast will not work. How about a small burger and a side salad? How about concentrating on a week rather than a day or every meal? Another issue all together is the unit calorie, as you know very well (loved the book), it has zero meaning to an average person. I do not see many people understanding what 100 calories is. What items are 100 calories and what does it take to burn off that (lovely 1 mile run). Lastly, I know where the 2000 calorie number used in the labels came from (hmm, your book explains this ), but this is being used as a general guideline that people base their consumption on.

    Like mentioned, it would be interesting to see if this actually works. Regardless of it all, I do applaud NY for taking steps to the correct direction.

  • Cara

    The booklet is a graphic design travesty. The junk food guzzling outline of a fat person is absolutely ridiculous and potentially disparaging. The Center for Consumer Freedom used the same strategy on one of its early reports: The obesity prevention community really needs to get its act together with respect to fat bias if it wants to craft effective communication campaigns.

  • Foodie

    Why don’t we stop covering junk food under SNAP? That seems the obvious first step.

  • Library Spinster

    I agree with the idea of encouraging people (all people, not just people who are food insecure) to eat a more healthy diet, less red meat, more vegetables, etc. But other posters are right: there’s no way the dull chicken breast sandwich is “just as good” as the cheeseburger. Particularly a chicken breast sandwich on a nutritionally negligible soft bun. Show a way to satisfy the occasional red meat craving in a healthier way: more vegetables, some cooked greens, better bread (or no bread), cooked with less fat. Instead of making a “healthier” version of ranch dressing, show how to dress a salad with a sensible amount of oil and an interesting vinegar.

    Also, there are differences in fruits and vegetables. Instead of a mealy apple with little flavor, tell people about Granny Smith apples.

    The booklet is a start, but only a start.

  • Lisa

    I agree with the above the food recommendations are a bit off – unsalted pretzels as a savory snack? What exactly is savory about an unsalted pretzel?

  • Kimberly

    I agree with the above comments. The cost comparisons seem way off. Also, I think it is a bit of a stretch to show the prices if the spices as cents. In the long run, yes. But the consumer will spend a large chunk buying the bottle initially. Also, where are the recipes for the suggested foods?

    Why are these only being handed out at farmers markets? Isn’t the person shopping at the farmers market at least partly aware already? There has to be a better way to distribute them.

  • I hadn’t even noticed that the booklets will be handed out at farmer’s markets. Talk about preaching to the choir! No one out there, SNAP recipient or not, thinks that a cheeseburger and a bag of Doritos is a “healthy” lunch. They already know that junk food is unhealthy: hence the term “junk food.” What they don’t know is how to make kale and cauliflower as delicious and filling as a cheeseburger.

    I think the money for this campaign would be much better spent in printing recipe cards for seasonal meals and paying for cooking demos at farmer’s markets.

  • Margie Gibson

    I like the emphasis on home cooking as an alternative to fast food, but home cooking shouldn’t mean frozen vegetables and canned fruit. If this booklet is being distributed at farmers’ markets, the recommendations should reflect that bounty of freshness! More emphasis could have been placed on eating as a family or other group, and not in shifts as so many people seem to do.

    I heartily dislike the phrase “grab an apple instead of….” Why not encourage eating fruit in season? Is the apple growing industry financially supporting this initiative? Also, this mindless, frenetic approach to eating is a large part of the problem; a mindful approach needs to be encouraged and eating on the run needs to be discouraged.

    Overall, the booklet is an interesting effort, but I think the recommendations are still rooted in outdated nutritional ideas that contributed to the obesity problem. There is still too much emphasis on processed foods: canned pineapple, frozen vegetables, low-fat cheese, white bread and refined pastas, juice. I think I smell the food corporations behind this. In addition, good fats vs bad fats is ignored. I fully agree that we need to eliminate the kind of fats found in fast foods, but there has been enough research that suggests all fats are not the same and this message needs to be conveyed. Is the general public too dense to understand a ‘shades of gray’ message? After all, the key to feeling satisfied is in those good fats, which the body needs to maintain good health.

  • Donna Davies Brackett

    Indeed, where to begin with the problems of that booklet… First off, it doesn’t explain anything about healthy eating. It is a more like a random collection of tidbits – but what are people to do with them? Who exactly is this booklet directed at? You can’t sell anyone a solution when you don’t identify the problem they are having.

    Not only were the cost comparisons terribly misleading as others have already noted, the booklet isn’t addressing the core problem people have with eating healthier food – lack of access, time and skill.

    Lack of access to good quality, fresh food is a serious problem, particularly in poor urban areas where there are often multiple fast food shops but no grocery stores or markets selling fresh food.

    The booklet seems to lean heavily on nutritionally-dubious processed and packaged foods as a solution to the need for inexpensive food … but the fact that so much more quantity can be purchased for so little money (even if it is without nutrition) is at the heart of the problem. They have access to – and can afford to buy – junk but not wholesome, fresh foods.

    On top of that, the booklet assumes that people who are eating fast food have the time and ability to shop and cook for their families. Given how much middle class families struggle with those problems, it seems disingenuous to gloss right over that. So assuming people could get all of the things they needed to make the foods pictured, there are no recipes and no information on how to make healthier fare taste good.

    People enjoy fast food because it is manufactured to taste good … and reducing the whole discussion down to fats and price is so ludicrous I can’t even put it into words.

  • Kathryn Kuchenbrod

    There are too many words on the pages and some of the recommendations are not helpful. “Hey, cook at home instead of eating junk food.” That is not easy for people who don’t know how to cook or have little time.