Put Healthy Food within Reach for All Peorians
BY SUSAN LEVIN, M.S., R.D.
Putting healthy food into reach: That’s the tagline for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps. But the reality is that healthful foods are out of reach for many SNAP participants—including some of the 25,000 SNAP households in the Peoria area. The Healthy Staples program, which I helped develop, could solve this problem.
Imagine walking into the corner grocery store to grab some oatmeal for breakfast, a banana for a snack or a bag of rice for dinner. But you’re unable to find these items. That’s reality for some SNAP participants, because many shops participating in SNAP are fully reimbursed for sodas, candy, fatty meats, cheeses and other junk food, and have little incentive to stock healthful foods.
With limited options to choose from, 55 percent of SNAP benefits are currently used for meats, sweetened beverages, prepared foods and desserts, cheese, salty snacks, candy and sugar. Just 23.9 percent are spent on fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and spices.
These empty calories come at a great cost. SNAP participants are at increased risk of death from heart disease and three times the diabetes mortality rate when compared with income-ineligible nonparticipants, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
As co-author of a paper about the Healthy Staples program, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine earlier this year, I recommend using the economic power of SNAP to end food deserts by reimbursing retailers who stock healthful foods and curtailing the economic rationale for stocking less nutritious foods.
SNAP participants could elect to choose a “package” of disease-fighting plant-based foods that participating grocery stores would supply: grains such as oatmeal, whole-grain bread, pasta, and tortillas; fresh, frozen, or low-sodium canned vegetables; dry or low-sodium canned beans; fresh, frozen, or canned fruit, and basic multiple vitamins. The package avoids junk foods that promote disease.
Typical meals may include oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, leafy green salads or a bean-based chili for lunch, and vegetable stir-fry or vegetable pasta dishes for dinner. Snacks and desserts may include fresh fruit, like apples, peaches and bananas.
Previous studies show incentivizing fruit and vegetable purchases increases fruit and vegetable consumption by about a quarter-cup each day, a positive step forward in addressing health disparities.
It’s worked for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which is based on the use of “packages”—dedicated foods and products that have been designated and approved by the USDA.
WIC food packages exclude sodas, candy, and other snack foods and were recently modified to provide recipients with additional whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Based on a 2012 survey in California, WIC participants increased consumption of whole grains by 17.3 percent and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by 7.2 percent.
Healthy Staples could do the same in the Peoria area, Illinois Congressional District 18, where half of SNAP households have children and teens.
The Healthy Staples program could also save SNAP $26 billion each year—reducing the average monthly benefit used per person from $126.39 to $78.66 each month—while still providing SNAP recipients abundant food and complete nutrition. This money could then be reimbursed into SNAP.
Let’s really put healthy food into reach in the SNAP program by promoting healthy staples that could help to alleviate hunger, fight chronic disease and cut health care costs.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is the director of nutrition education for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.