Why food stamp recipients can’t just SNAP out of poverty

Why food stamp recipients can’t just SNAP out of poverty
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There’s a policy fight brewing in Congress over efforts to overhaul the food-stamp program, and the Trump administration received public comment on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) about having “able-bodied SNAP participants move out of poverty and into work.” But if the administration isn’t willing to disrupt the status quo and address the root causes of poverty, this won’t make a difference.

SNAP is our nation’s biggest hunger relief program, serving millions of people every day. Elevating SNAP recipients out of poverty will involve broader social, economic, and structural issues, including health care, housing, immigration, transportation, trade, and education, among other matters. All of these issues are linked to our broken food system.


Industrial agriculture in the United States produces enormous quantities of food for domestic consumption, plus exports worth billions of dollars, but it also harms the environment and rural communities, and causes billions of dollars in preventable health care costs and untold suffering.


Our capital-intensive production system is bolstered by an immense processing and marketing infrastructure that makes cheap, unhealthy food widely accessible, but fails to provide easy access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods — especially in lower-income communities. The majority of daily calories consumed in the U.S. come from processed foods, while less than 1 percent come from fresh vegetables.   

U.S. agriculture produces food rich in calories, but deficient in nutrients — with deeply damaging results for our nation’s health — and government programs are inextricably linked to this. Rather than mass-producing cheap empty calories, our food system and government policy need to prioritize quality food and increase availability of nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

In the U.S., we consume foods that make us sick — including through SNAP — and our population is suffering from preventable diet-related illnesses that cost hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines report released in 2015 explains: “About half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. These include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and poor bone health. More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth are overweight or obese.” Government subsidies for meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods bear much of the responsibility.

U.S. agricultural policy must shift from supporting industrialized animal agriculture, toward encouraging a diversified, community-oriented, plant-based food system. This would allow us to feed more people with fewer resources. Millions of acres of land are being used to grow feed crops for farm animals, but could be more efficiently used to grow plant foods for people. In urban and suburban settings, yards and other open spaces can be used to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other edible plants. Rooftop farms and vertical hydroponic operations can be constructed in unused industrial-age buildings situated in communities that need better access to healthy food — and at the same time, operations like these can create jobs.

We are now in the midst of a food movement where people want to live well and to eat nourishing food that is produced responsibly. Farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), and organic and urban gardening are expanding, and these ventures present new and exciting opportunities for individuals and communities, as do careers in food education, wellness, and the culinary arts. Our government should actively support endeavors like these, which promote wellness, create purposeful jobs, and can transform our broken food system.

Our nation could save hundreds of billions of dollars in preventable health care costs every year by shifting toward a whole-foods, plant-based diet, and our government’s food policies, including the SNAP program, should help lead the way.

SNAP and other programs can play a constructive role in changing the food environment and creating employment opportunities linked to growing, distributing, and preparing food. Existing USDA programs like the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI), which doubles the value of SNAP dollars spent on fruits and vegetables, should be expanded. FINI encourages people to eat better, and also supports farmers who grow healthy food. The government should also promote community and school gardens and incentivize production and retail policies and systems that make fresh, healthy food more prevalent and accessible, including through new farmer programs available to veterans and other citizens who make up a disproportionately large percentage of SNAP recipients.

There are burgeoning opportunities linked to transforming our food system that clearly serve the common good, but progress will require changing the status quo. As someone who has been willing to disrupt entrenched interests in Washington, D.C., I hope the president will consider taking on this task.

Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.