SNAP: Using Our Tax Dollars More Effectively
Among the basic essentials for life are air, water, shelter, and food. However, we tend to undervalue the importance of food in this country, not on a basis of how much we consume, but on what we consume. Our food, as it relates to society's well being, has been absent from the conversation over the years, and it is time we put it in the discussion.
There are now, more than ever, more people needing nutritional assistance. The number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as food stamps) recipients has climbed by about 10 million over the past two years, resulting in a program that now feeds more than 1 in 8 Americans and nearly 1 in 4 children in the entire country.
If there was an option by which people could benefit more by making healthier food choices (perhaps according to the latest government dietary guidelines pictured at left), society as a whole would benefit in the short and long term. The problem with the status quo is that the price to sustain a healthy body and eat right is too high for most Americans, and we are all paying the bill in high health care costs.
The obesity rates and diet-related medical illnesses among the poor and lower-middle class are higher than the national average and increasingly growing. Moreover, the leading cause of death in this country is heart disease, which is linked to one's diet. Can we blame anyone for purchasing the five-for-a-dollar TV dinners or the fifty-cent 2 liters of soda, especially on a SNAP budget, which barely lasts two weeks out of the month?
I've got an idea: Say there was a program called the Healthy Eating Option, or HEO. It would work in the following way: A hypothetical $100 per month allotment in SNAP benefits would turn into $150 if the recipient chose to opt into the HEO program. HEO would consist of only raw foods such as meats, dairy products, grains, vegetables, fruits, etc. This would give SNAP recipients an incentive and the resources to make healthier decisions. If you really think about it, the mass-produced frozen or preserved foods are some of the things we import most from foreign countries. Under the HEO, the money we are distributing through SNAP would be circulated back into our own economy (through farmers, growers, local markets, etc.)
Another key benefit to my HEO plan is it would create incentives and enable parents to take action on the health of their children. Parents who couldn't before afford home-cooked meals would be able to invest more in the nutritional quality of their families' meals. Many studies have proven that families that sit together for meals often eat healthier meals--plus the children get better grades and stay off drugs, and it encourages stronger morals and family bonding.
Lastly, skeptics might suggest that we cannot afford to increase SNAP benefits at a time when we are looking to make major spending cuts, including to the SNAP program. I would argue this fundamental change in the way we think about food is essential both for the health of SNAP recipients and for reducing health care costs for the entire country. I would also add that the money we would save by being a healthier society would far outweigh the cost.
Some recent efforts have been taken to address the nutritional quality of anti-hunger programs such as Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The Food Revolution campaign by Jamie Oliver, the famous chef and 2010 TED Prize Winner, provides an instructive example of a private effort to promote national awareness about nutrition. These are all great milestones toward the goal of a healthier society. However, my Healthy Eating Option proposal addresses the SNAP program as a whole and encourages fundamental change within the entire system.
Jake Stuckey is a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Program, interning at the RAC.