SNAP to Health Interviews Public Health Attorney Michele Simon

Posted on by Kirstin Krusell

Last week the SNAP to Health team spoke with Michele Simon, public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back.

Below are some highlights from our discussion.

Interest in SNAP

Michele Simon has been researching and writing on food industry practices and food politics since 1996.  As a public health lawyer she promotes policies to make healthy choices easier.

During the past year, Simon became interested in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) when New York City applied for a waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study the feasibility of restricting the purchase of soft drinks with SNAP benefits.  She is currently researching the role of the food and beverage industry in the denial of this waiver request by USDA.

Improving nutrition in SNAP

When asked about the role that restrictions play in improving nutrition among SNAP participants, Simon noted that both public health and anti-hunger advocates bring valid concerns to this debate. She added that we don’t necessarily need to choose between incentives and restrictions, but rather USDA should utilize pilot studies to test the most effective methods for improving nutrition in SNAP. Simon believes a crucial factor in this process is access to data on what types of foods SNAP participants are purchasing. This will help guide research on the program, and shine a spotlight on the stakes held by the food industry, which would add an important perspective on the denial of NYC’s waiver request.

Encouraging public health advocates to get political

In a recent blog post titled “2012: The Year to Stop Playing Nice”, Simon wrote: “Many public health folks I know are more comfortable with research and data than politics and lobbying. But if we are to make real progress, that has to change”. When asked how public health advocates might overcome their hesitation in getting political, Simon reminded us that “the food industry is fearless when it comes to politics”, and that by spending time writing recipe guides rather than fighting for change in the political arena, public health advocates are having too little impact on SNAP and other nutrition policy.

When asked how this can be accomplished in the context of increasingly common public-private partnerships with the food industry to tackle issues related to the food environment, Simon emphasized the need for caution.  “I’m all for common ground when there is common ground to be found”, she said.  “However, it’s important to understand how the food industry wants to be seen in a positive light and how superficial partnerships can serve as window-dressing—a way of keeping government regulations at bay while conducting business as usual.”

How citizens can get involved

But public health advocates aren’t the only ones who have a role to play in improving the food environment. “There is no shortage of opportunities for engagement”, Simon said. She suggested finding a project that speaks to you. For example, if you have a child in public school, you might consider addressing the issue of healthier school lunches. Or if you live in a food desert you could get involved in improving access to nutritious foods in the community.

Simon also stressed the importance of collective action in countering food industry power and marketing practices. She recommended getting involved with organizations that can implement major campaigns on issues you care about. You can also contact your Member of Congress to let them know you support efforts to promote healthier nutrition for all. She also noted that as voters we can support representatives actively working on these issues, even if they’re not in our district, such as Senator Wyden (D-Oregon) and Representative Pingree (D-Maine).

To read more by Michele Simon, click here.

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