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Rethinking grocery stores for a healthier SNAP


Lack of access to nutritious diets is a major challenge for people with low incomes in the United States. A report released late in June by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that nearly nine out of 10 participants of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) face barriers to healthy eating and underscored the inadequacy of SNAP. 

While the study sheds light on some barriers to healthy food access, the scope of the assessment is limited. A more complete assessment would include the many ways in which our food system drives consumers toward unhealthy choices, creating an environment that prioritizes profits over health. Some call these barriers the “commercial determinants of health,” and these were not acknowledged in this latest USDA report.

These commercial barriers are all around us and are especially stacked against families with low incomes. 

Grocery stores are not neutral environments for shoppers. Food and beverage companies spend billions each year to feature their products — many of which are high in added sugars, salt and fat. They are displayed prominently on shelves, at checkout aisles, and through in-store advertisements, greatly influencing customers’ purchases. What customers want often takes a back seat to corporate contracts. 

“I feel like I’m being attacked in the grocery store. You know all those little candy bars at checkout, and you know they attack me…” a North Carolinian participating in SNAP shared when asked about struggles to shop for and eat healthy food. 

SNAP participants, who are especially sensitive to price points, can be drawn to cheap products that are lacking in nutrients, a fact that food and beverage companies are known to exploit. A 2018 study found that in areas of New York with high SNAP enrollment, sodas were more heavily advertised when SNAP benefits were issued compared to other times of the month. People living in lower-income neighborhoods are more exposed to predatory food advertisements, aggressive marketing that targets a specific group, such as using cartoons to appeal to children. 

Despite their best efforts to make healthy choices in stores, three-quarters of parents reported difficulty shopping at grocery stores due to the prevalence of unhealthy foods and children’s preference for them. Junk food marketing especially targets Black and Latino children, who are more likely to view fast food advertising compared to their White peers. This trend has become more pronounced over the last several years. 

USDA is right to address the barriers of costs, time and transportation to healthy eating facing SNAP participants. However, USDA should also focus on the role of food industry marketing, which disproportionately targets people who participate in SNAP and others with low incomes. Consumers should not have to fight an upstream battle alone against the many factors that conspire to serve food industry profit over their health. 

In the past, USDA has explored approaches to encourage healthy options in stores for SNAP-authorized retailers, including a nutrition labeling system highlighting healthy foods in conjunction with price promotions. A provision in the 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to update requirements for SNAP-authorized retailers, ensuring that they offer a variety of staple foods. The agency has noted that due to the large reach of SNAP, “even small changes to consumer purchasing patterns toward healthier food could have a significant public health impact.” However, more needs to be done at the federal level. Localities elsewhere are taking action to improve the food environment. Last year, Berkeley, Calif., removed junk food from grocery checkout aisles, the first measure of its kind in the country. 

The good news is USDA has taken important steps toward promoting healthy eating in SNAP. These include: identifying healthy eating hurdles for SNAP participants, increasing healthy choices in stores, and evaluating SNAP benefits based on the cost of a nutritious diet. Now is the time to focus on the missing link of how retail marketing strategies can support healthy eating for SNAP participants.  

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has emphasized time and again that access to nutritious foods is one of his key priorities. Vilsack and his team have their work cut out for them.

Cassie Ramos is a policy associate at Center for Science in the Public Interest and focuses on SNAP policies.

Tags farm bill Food industry Food Stamps Healthy diet healthy foods Junk food low-income families Snap Tom Vilsack

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