President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget request has me worried for the future health and well-being of our nation’s low-income communities. Under this proposal, there is to be an immediate $17 billion reduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, followed by a $213.5 billion reduction over the next 10 years.
There are more than 40 million people who receive SNAP. Not only does SNAP help families put food on the table, it also provides economic benefits. According to the USDA, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates $9 in economic activity. SNAP benefits are being spent at farmers’ markets, large-chain supermarkets, local groceries and corner stores all throughout America. Many farmers’ markets allow recipients to “double their dollar” when using SNAP benefits, enabling participants to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and support local farms in their communities.
The proposal to replace SNAP with “America’s harvest box,” a box of “shelf-stable” canned and boxed goods, for those households receiving more than $90 per month, is perplexing and concerning to say the least. Taking away one’s power to choose one product over another, for instance, disrupts a person’s powerful connection with food, it disrupts a family’s ability to make their favorite dish for Sunday night dinner or to try a new vegetable. Sending a box of canned foods does not allow a person the choice between fresh, frozen or canned produce. Additionally, canned foods are often high in sodium, which may also pose difficulty for people who need to follow a low-sodium diet.
SNAP is not perfect, but combined with the nutritional education on how to eat healthy on a budget, I believe SNAP can be used effectively to help sustain nutritional status and improve overall health. Nutrition education is essential in improving the health of low-income communities, which is where SNAP education — or “SNAP-ed,” the nutrition education component of SNAP — comes into play. SNAP-ed can help SNAP recipients make healthier decisions with these funds, make the most of each dollar and understand importance of eating a well-balanced diet. In Maryland, for example, the Text2BeHealthy program, a healthy text messaging service to promote healthy eating behaviors, developed under SNAP-ed, reaches over 2,000 parents annually. According to their fiscal year 2016 report, over 20,000 low-income youth participants in Maryland received nutrition education through Maryland’s SNAP-ed.
Another key nutrition education program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Child Nutrition Program, is proposed to receive a $1.1 billion reduction in funds. Having previously worked as a nutrition educator on the USDA Summer Food Service Program in Philadelphia, which helps low-income children receive meals during the summer months, I know firsthand the positive impact that these programs can have on hundreds of families. Research shows that children affected by food insecurity may have more problems with academics, emotional and behavioral health. Given that research also shows food and beverage ads to be more prevalent in lower-income neighborhoods, education on healthy behaviors that start during childhood is essential.
Without these programs to educate on the importance of choosing nutrient-dense foods and healthy eating on a budget, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins are typically not at the top of the grocery list. People often turn to the processed snacks high in sodium and added sugar. This in turn is contributing to the alarming prevalence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in communities. I believe reductions in the SNAP budget and elimination of SNAP-ed will worsen this epidemic and increase food insecurity, hunger and poverty. In the health care setting, we will see more patients come into clinics and hospital emergency rooms with worsening, uncontrolled diet-related diseases. Research shows the correlation between food insecurity and increased health care costs.
SNAP benefits and nutrition education programs, including but not limited to SNAP-ed and the Child Nutrition Program, are vital to help improve the health of low-income neighborhoods throughout America. We need these programs to continue receiving adequate funding; the public health of lower-income communities is at stake.
Caroline Meehan is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Baltimore. She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.