SNAP Decisions: When Your Local Government-Approved Retailer Is Dennies Liquors

Mar 02

Growing up in a family that relied on government assistance to help us meet our food and nutrition needs, my biggest concern was avoiding the embarrassment that came with pulling out the booklet of paper food stamps in our upper-middle class neighborhood grocery store. As a kid, that embarrassment felt bigger than all the things I’m sure my mom was worrying about: making the food stamps stretch through the month, finding access to healthy foods, and making the best choices for our family.

Even though I couldn’t imagine that anyone I knew used food stamps, there must have been others in our community. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest of the 15 domestic nutrition assistance programs administered by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. In an average month, the program provides benefits to more than 47 million low-income individuals. On average, households received $275 in SNAP benefits per month (or $133 per person) in 2014.

Many improvements have been made to the food assistance program since my family used food stamps in the 80s: debit cards have replaced paper food stamps, farmers markets accept SNAP payments, and there are incentive programs to encourage healthy choices. But perhaps the biggest improvement is forthcoming—an improvement that provides easier access to healthy food. In August 2017, USDA will launch an online purchasing pilot in seven states that will allow beneficiaries to use their SNAP benefits to make food purchases online through vendors like Amazon and FreshDirect. Eventually, the goal is for this to be a national option for SNAP participants.

Access to healthy food is an important issue that I’ll come back to, but how do participants use their SNAP benefits? The program is intended to cover food purchases, so products like diapers, laundry detergent, and pet food are not covered. Also not covered: alcohol and tobacco. But when it comes to food, there are few, if any, restrictions. It is not a perfect system. A recent USDA report indicates that the top purchases in SNAP households are soft drinks—accounting for 5% of the dollars spent on food. Even though the same report shows that non-SNAP households bought nearly as much soda, USDA has been criticized for not putting restrictions on purchases like soda and foods high in sugar and fat that contribute to the nation’s obesity problem.

Is it appropriate for the government to dictate what people can buy with SNAP funds? This question is a political and moral landmine that has been debated extensively (see coverage in Forbes, Slate, USA Today). A recent New York Times article quotes David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, as saying that the purpose of SNAP is to protect the health and well-being of the nation, not to ensure that poor households have access to sugary drinks.

Whether you agree or disagree, legislation to regulate SNAP purchases has failed to make it through Congress because putting the government in the position of deciding what foods are “good” and which are “bad” would be difficult and costly—and, some believe, unfair to SNAP recipients.

While it may not have banned soda and other junk food, USDA recognizes that it plays a role in helping SNAP participants make better food choices. A May 2015 report issued by the agency—“Diet Quality of Americans by SNAP Participation Status”—highlighted three areas where the program can promote better nutrition:

  • Milk. Across all age groups, SNAP participants are more likely than nonparticipants to consume whole or reduced-fat milk and less likely to consume lowfat or nonfat milk. As such, USDA recognizes that SNAP education programs should encourage participants to replace whole and reduced-fat milk with lowfat or nonfat milk.
  • Fruits and veggies. SNAP participants consume fewer whole fruits and vegetables than nonparticipants. As such, USDA recognizes that SNAP education programs should encourage participants to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.
  • Soda. SNAP participants are more likely to consume regular sodas than nonparticipants and were less likely to consume sugar-free sodas than nonparticipants. As such, USDA recognizes that SNAP education programs should encourage participants to reduce consumption of regular sodas.

 

Having a handle on the areas where SNAP can influence food purchasing to be healthier is one thing, but how USDA can get people to actually make those healthy choices is the million-dollar question. For many people, it’s difficult to choose an apple over potato chips, though with enough education they might. But no amount of education will help if the apple isn’t even for sale where you shop.

To explore this, I conducted a quick experiment. Using USDA’s SNAP Retailer Locator I looked up authorized providers in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Southeast DC. The search returned 25 results, including two very questionable stores (Dennies Liquors, Discount Tobacco & Vapor Shop); several that I would classify as moderately acceptable in terms of offering healthy food options (7-Eleven, CVS); and only one full-service grocery store (Shoppers Food Warehouse). Per the USDA’s implications for nutrition promotion, I wonder which of these retailers sell skim milk? Fruits and veggies? I bet they all sell soda!

This raises a lot of questions, but two big ones are: how did some of these retailers get on the list, and how do people who live in this neighborhood get healthy food?

The criteria for becoming a SNAP retailer seem quite reasonable, but even though all SNAP-approved retailers are required to provide at least three out of four staple food groups (including perishable foods in at least two categories), I am curious how USDA monitors compliance.

So what options do residents of Anacostia have when Dennies Liquors is their closest retailer? You might say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” but that’s probably your privilege talking. According to USDA research, the average straight-line distance to the nearest supermarket is 2.1 miles. I know I’m incredibly fortunate because there are three grocery stores within three blocks of my apartment, including an organic market. I also have the means to order food online, including a twice-monthly fruits and veggies delivery.

People who live in food deserts have difficulty obtaining nutritious food due to availability, affordability, distance, or the number of grocery stores in the area. From Big Think’s “Urban Food Deserts and Washington, D.C.”:

Healthful food is scarce in Washington’s inner city. Much of the food comes from corner markets and various take-out and fast food restaurants. The National Academy of Sciences reported last year that within food deserts, families typically shop at convenience stores overflowing with high-fat snacks, soda, alcohol and cigarettes, which are marked up in price. Based on these results, connections can also be made with increased health risk; the highest levels of obesity exist within the city’s two Wards east of the Anacostia, where poverty is greatest and access to grocery stores is the worst.

This describes countless cities across the U.S., and many rural settings don’t fare any better. Access to healthy foods is a major issue.

USDA’s new online purchasing pilot program isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a big step in the right direction—giving people the ability to make better choices that don’t rely on the selection at their local corner store. And more can be done. For example, USDA could evaluate the interim results of the pilot program before the end of the two-year term and consider expanding beyond the initial seven states and seven approved retailers. They could also access data about which types of food are purchased through the pilot to better understand and inform future education efforts. For brick and mortar retailers, especially corner stores in food deserts, USDA can support local nonprofits and charities—such as DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners program—to ensure a supply of fruits and vegetables.

My embarrassment over being on food stamps as a kid faded long ago, but what remains is a life-long interest in policies and education efforts that help ensure that families—especially kids—are able to make healthy choices with as few barriers as possible. I look forward to seeing if, and hopefully how, expanded access to healthy food choices paves the way for SNAP beneficiaries to actually make those choices.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 2nd, 2017 at 3:10 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Public Health, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “SNAP Decisions: When Your Local Government-Approved Retailer Is Dennies Liquors”

  1. Beth Ruoff says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful blog. You are right that the SNAP system isn’t perfect, but the new online pilot program is a welcome addition. I’d like to see a program that makes personal hygiene products like diapers and laundry detergent accessible to those in need. As you point out SNAP addresses nutrition assistance only. Perhaps some of the innovative programs happening with SNAP will inspire others to address personal hygiene products.

  2. Junia Geisler says:

    Thanks for your comment Beth. Agree that products like diapers and laundry detergent are essential and there should be assistance programs to help cover those items. I think the online purchasing pilots are promising because it seems there would be better retailer accountability and tracking mechanisms, while allowing more freedom of choice for the consumer.