How the Farm Bill Could Encourage Unhealthy Eating for Food Stamp Users

The farm bill that Congress is negotiating will likely include cuts to the food stamps program that nutrition advocates say will discourage poor people from making healthier choices with the dollars that remain.
by | November 11, 2013 AT 5:15 PM
Studies show that low-income Americans, the population that receives food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are more likely to have a poor diet. (Photo: FlickrCC/gruntzooki)

Cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, will discourage poor people from making healthier choices with the dollars that remain, say nutrition advocates. Healthy foods often come with higher price tags, and less money means poor families' options are even more limited.

Policy analysts are now glued to Congressional negotiations over a renewed farm bill that promises cuts for food stamp recipients but also programs designed to encourage healthy choices and a boon to the farmers’ markets that are an increasingly popular venue for those options. Farm bills are massive pieces of legislation that cover wide-ranging food policy issues, from farm credits to international trade and nutrition programs. Congress last passed a five-year farm bill in 2008 and kept it alive past its expiration through temporary measures until October 2013.

Some say the effect on sales of fresh produce and other healthy foods from a Nov. 1 rollback of benefits to pre-recession levels aren’t yet visible, but there’s little doubt they’ll come.  The boost from the 2009 stimulus act that lifted monthly benefits for 47.6 million Americans in the program has run dry without reauthorization, costing a family of four an estimated 21 meals per month. The likelihood of billions in farm bill cuts to food stamps deals an obvious blow to anti-hunger efforts everywhere and promises challenging times for the nation’s food banks, but it also undermines efforts to improve nutritional outcomes for people in SNAP, said Anne Ayella, the assistant community relations director with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is active in a city-wide public health campaign.

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“It’s going to affect people making healthy choices, be it at corner stores, farmers’ markets or healthy grocery stores,” she said. “If they’re going to be 21 meals down you can be sure to stretch it instead of getting produce and lean cuts of meat.”

Philadelphia is among a number of cities that have targeted obesity and diabetes by trying to increase the availability of fresh produce and healthy foods at corner stores and farmers markets, where food stamp recipients can boost their benefits through an incentive program allowing them to receive more funding for spending SNAP benefits on healthier foods. Higher incidence of obesity,  type 2 diabetes and other costly health problems are linked to income. Pennsylvania is also the state that pioneered a program a decade ago to help develop grocery stores in communities that lack access to much beyond fast food and convenience stores. The farm bill under negotiation between House and Senate lawmakers would fund national initiatives that mirror both programs.

The Senate and House both passed their own versions of a new farm bill and now have to reconcile the differences before taking final votes on reauthorization. It's not certain that they'll finish in time to pass a bill before the end of the year. Both chambers propose cutting food stamps, but the sticking point is in the severity. The Senate wants to reduce the program’s spending by $4 billion, the House by $40 billion. The recent rollback to pre-recession levels reduced spending by $5 billion.  

Also included in the farm bill passed by both chambers are millions for expanding or creating nutrition programs and supporting farmers markets. Although the two bills aren’t perfectly in sync on spending levels for those initiatives, policy analysts are confident they’ll survive negotiations in some form.

Among them are:

  • $100 million over five years in the Senate bill to boost rebates for food stamp recipients who purchase food from participating farmers’ markets. The Senate would create a wholly separate program while the House would add $25 million over five years to the Community Food Project, an existing grant program that would also see a funding boost.    
  • $125 million for the Healthy Food Financing Program, which provides funding to develop and equip grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores and others serving so-called “food deserts.” The Senate and House versions of the bill contain identical funding levels. 
  • Millions more per year in grants to improve and expand farmers markets. The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program would also expand its scope to support infrastructure investments in food hubs or storage facilities to improve access to fresh foods. From 2012’s $10 million in funding, the program would leap to at least $30 million annually if the House version prevails and at least $20 million a year under the Senate, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. That’s not including additional annual spending that would have to be specifically authorized. 

Since 2009 the number of farmers markets accepting food stamps has tripled to more than 3,000 nationwide, according to the Farmers Market Coalition, an advocacy group. In that time, food stamp redemptions at markets have shot up four times, to more than $16 million a year. Those trends can continue with incentive programs and a promotion fund that helps equip farmers  markets with the technology they need to accept food stamps, said Jen O’Brien, the group’s executive director.

“I think the point has been made that farmers’ markets are having a positive impact on the health of their communities and particularly the health of their low-income citizens,” she said. “The money goes directly to local farmers, so it’s really building agriculture at the same time it’s feeding hungry people who need those fresh foods the most.”

For now, incentive programs across the U.S. are financed privately through donors and the support of foundations. In Philadelphia, where food stamp recipients can earn an additional $2 toward produce for every $5 in food stamps they spend at farmers’ markets, food stamp sales have increased nearly four times since the incentive program began in 2009, according to the Food Trust, a national organization that operates 25 markets in the city. The group also supports Healthy Food Financing, which got its start in Pennsylvania in 2004 as a public-private partnership on $30 million in state funding. That money has led to the creation of 88 grocery options for underserved communities and 5,000 jobs that were either created or retained with the help of tens of millions in private investment, according to PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy group.

“I think there are lots of markets across the country that are interested in getting something like this going, and the farm bill could really help with that,” said John Weidman, deputy director for the Food Trust.  But Weidman said the addition of new funding for healthy eating initiatives doesn’t come close to offsetting the damage of billions in cuts to the overall purchasing power of low-income people.  “$4 billion at the very minimum is still a very huge cut,” he said.