November 25, 2013

WashPo’s “Too much of too little” misses the point

Karina Christiansen

Karina Christiansen

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

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Corner store in Baltimore / M. MILLI

Also contributing to this story is Wei-ting Chen, a CLF-Lerner Fellow who is earning her doctorate in the Department of Sociology.

We appreciate The Washington Post’s ongoing effort to highlight the challenges associated with the food stamp program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). However, we find that Eli Saslow’s recent article on SNAP ignores widely available research on this important safety net program and in doing so leads to a shallow analysis that perpetuates an unfair and undue stigma among program recipients. We are particularly troubled by how Mr. Saslow frames the article, the last in a series of five, questioning whether SNAP “fuels” unhealthy personal decision making and leads to poor health experienced by many of its recipients – and correspondingly if the recent growth in the program can be tied to rising rates of diet-related disease. Frankly, these questions reveal just how far Mr. Saslow has missed the boat in his narrative. We will unpack why these are the wrong questions to ask, and how focusing on them can lead to a policy debate that ignores the wider reality of American poverty, joblessness, and our industrial food system.

The article muses on the expansion of SNAP in the last several years, now at 1 in 7 Americans participating, without examining its cause. Yes, SNAP enrollment has grown dramatically, but this should not come as a surprise – SNAP runs counter-cyclical with the economy. As the number of unemployed and underemployed Americans increased, so have SNAP rolls. Recent employment gains have not reduced SNAP enrollment because wages continue to stagnate and fall short of household expenditure needs. Without explaining this basic and well-understood relationship the reader is left with the sense that somehow the government through its largesse is ramping up spending on a program the author posits may actually be harming its participants. Troubling, indeed.

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A popular $1 snack in McAllen, TX, according to Eli Saslow / WASHINGTON POST

Despite a fair amount of available research on the relationship between the SNAP program and the diet of its recipients, Mr. Saslow makes an unsubstantiated leap in logic between the recent SNAP expansion and poor eating habits and health among participants. Yet, he fails to mention how SNAP participation itself is the reason behind this reliance. And how could he?

Whether receiving assistance or not, we know that people in poverty and communities of color often live in places saturated with inexpensive fast food, and few places that sell fresh produce at a reasonable price or of acceptable quality. Receiving SNAP dollars to buy groceries alone does not lead to purchasing unhealthy foods. Living in poverty (and therefore eligible for SNAP) limits options to access a nutritionally adequate diet. Furthermore, Americans of all socio-economic strata fall short of adhering to the USDA’s recommended dietary guidelines, even those among us who have no financial or geographic barriers to accessing healthy foods. To suggest food stamps may be the cause of a poor diet ignores the reality of how most Americans eat, as if one must be on a “government feeding program” (Saslow’s unfortunate phrase) to eat junk food. It is poverty and its constraints that lead to poor diets and poor health.

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What a SNAP recipient buys when she can access a full-service supermarket and has time to cook for her family of four. / W. CHEN

The article segues from the story of one particular family on SNAP, meant perhaps to shock the reader in its descriptions of cheese covered Cheetos and insulin injections, to nutrition educators who struggle to deliver health education to low-income parents in Hidalgo County, Texas, so “people could just understand their choices.” By focusing on the individual habits of one family and the challenge of nutrition education in poor communities, the article frames obesity among the poor as an issue primarily of personal behavior and education, ignoring the context in which people live and choose. First, it is widely understood among public health researchers that education alone is insufficient to lead to dietary change and combat the obesity epidemic. Second, Mr. Saslow mentions, but does not critically engage with, how the built environment constrains personal behavior among an already under-resourced and vulnerable population. There are “ubiquitous drive-through convenience stores” and “a near-by dollar store,” but where can families in Hidalgo County go to purchase the dark leafy greens and whole grains promoted by the health educators? And, for many without cars or access to reliable public transportation, how? To impact diet and health at a community level, particularly in communities where SNAP participation rates are high, we must encourage food retailers to become real partners in promoting healthy diets as well as facilitate alternative models of food access, from community owned co-operative stores to farmers markets.

Food retailers have an enormous stake in the game, which could be used to leverage change and provide more people with access to food necessary for an adequate diet. SNAP produces real economic benefits for communities and the food industry. Each $1 billion of retail generated by SNAP creates $340 million in farm production, $110 million in farm value-added, and 3,300 farm jobs. Research finds that a 5 percent increase in SNAP participation would result in 2.1 million low-income Americans receiving $973 million in SNAP benefits, generating $1.8 billion in new economic activity. The real question here should be: given the enormous buying power of SNAP and retailer’s dependence on it as income, how can we change the food retail landscape so that the healthy choice is an easy, affordable, and attractive one, particularly for vulnerable families?

This report perpetuates the stigma of receiving food stamps and fuels the false perception that low-income consumers are uninformed about proper nutrition. By branding its recipients as irresponsible and program itself as potentially causing harm and wasting tax-payer money, and ignoring all the available evidence that says SNAP benefits communities and fights hunger, the public may be more willing to accept the massive proposed cuts in the next Farm Bill. As of November 1, 2013, all SNAP recipients already saw a 5 percent cut in their monthly benefits – this translates into a maximum loss of $36 per month for a family of four (which translates into about one and half days of food budget). By the end of 2014, SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal. In light of these figures, we challenge The Washington Post to examine the underlying causes of poor diet and health by focusing on poverty and underemployment, particularly in communities where it is persistent, and correspondingly how those communities are most burdened by a powerful industrialized food system that favors the production of cheap, highly-processed, nutrient-poor foods. Good at filling an empty belly, disastrous for those who have few other real options.

Photos, top to bottom: Michael Milli, 2013; Washington Post, 2013; Wei-ting Chen, 2013.

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