Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Experts Weigh in on SNAP Problems and Solutions

Posted on by Kristy Blackwood

A recent study by members of the SNAP to Health Project Team was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND).  Experts from advocacy, government, industry and research organizations were interviewed about the challenges SNAP participants face eating nutritiously with SNAP benefits.  Respondents also gave their opinions about improvements that could be made to the program to help overcome these challenges.

After interviewing the experts, several key barriers to eating nutritiously with SNAP benefits emerged.  These included the high cost of nutrient-rich foods, inadequate SNAP benefit amounts, as well as environmental factors associated with poverty.  Unfortunately, foods with greater nutritional value tend to be more expensive. Combined with the fact that many experts agreed recipients are not receiving a sufficient amount of benefits, it’s easy to see why “SNAP participants might purchase nutrient-poor foods and beverages instead of purchasing fruits and vegetables to stretch their budget.”  Taking into consideration environmental factors associated with poverty like poor access to transportation, few local retailers that carry produce and healthy foods, and neighborhood violence that can make walking to retailers unsafe, it is evident that there are many barriers for SNAP recipients who want to eat nutritiously.

Those stakeholders who were interviewed had several solutions to overcoming these barriers, many of which are included in the recommendations made by the SNAP to Health Project Team in their 2012 report. For instance, interviewees suggested increasing both incentives and restrictions on the types of food purchased with benefits.  Because cost is often a barrier to purchasing healthy foods, SNAP policies should include incentives to help make these products more accessible to its recipients.  This is already being done at farmer’s markets where SNAP beneficiaries can get credits or bonus dollars for every dollar they spend. Many stakeholders believed these incentives should also be paired with restrictions on certain unhealthy foods that have been proven to contribute to weight gain such as sugar sweetened beverages. Another proposed strategy was modifying the SNAP benefit distribution to make it biweekly so that purchasing perishable fruits and vegetables would be more feasible.  Additionally, respondents in this study agreed enhancing nutrition education is an important part of overcoming some of these challenges.  Suggestions ranged from improving the existing SNAP-education program to incorporating social marketing approaches to reach SNAP participants in grocery stores. Recommendations were also made to improve the SNAP retailer environment; respondents proposed “stricter criteria to become an approved SNAP vendor” and “providing incentives for small SNAP vendors to sell healthy foods.”  Finally, many stakeholders interviewed called for more cooperation at the state and federal government levels, proposing “consistent nutrition messages that align with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and increased coordination among all federal nutrition assistance programs” as well as the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services.

This analysis of experts’ opinions emphasizes that SNAP is a critical safety net program providing nutrition to 1 out of 7 Americans, 50% of whom are children. The potential for SNAP is enormous, but to truly reach its goal of being a program that focuses on nutrition and healthy life styles, improvements need to be made.  The recommendations from this study included in the SNAP to Health report can help make SNAP an important antipoverty program as well as an innovative public health initiative.

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