Magazine article Policy & Practice

SNAP and Nutrition: States Take Different Approaches toward the Same Goal

Magazine article Policy & Practice

SNAP and Nutrition: States Take Different Approaches toward the Same Goal

Article excerpt

In an effort to reduce the rising rate of obesity and diabetes among low-income families, New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a plan, in October 2010, putting restrictions on what can be purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. Asking to waive SNAP rules, Bloomberg requested that soda and other sugary drinks should not be allowable purchases with SNAP benefits. After deliberating for ten months, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rejected the request on the grounds that it was "too large and too complex," and added that it would be difficult to measure results.


While New York was the first state to propose a plan to tie SNAP usage directly to what the White House has called an epidemic, other states are also taking steps to address the problem. Massachusetts also launched a plan to battle obesity among low-income families, but that state is approaching the problem from a much different angle. Instead of prohibiting specific items for purchase, Massachusetts intends to reward people for buying nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Thirty years ago, the idea of not being allowed to purchase sugar-sweetened drinks with food stamps would have been considered comical. Even 20 years ago, obesity and related illnesses were not so widespread that states would consider such an intervention. So what has happened most recently to warrant all the commotion? According to the dietary guidelines for Americans, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has roughly doubled among children ages 2-11 since the 1970s and nearly tripled among adolescents ages 12-19. In 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher first issued a Call to Action to prevent and decrease the number of people who are overweight or obese. In 2003, then-Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to describe what he called "the obesity crisis in America." It has been almost a decade and the problem continues to grow.

There are many risk factors that, when working alongside each other, typically lead to a child becoming overweight. These include a family history of obesity, lack of physical exercise on a daily basis, and psychological factors where some children overeat to cope with emotions. In addition to these, there are physical barriers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity continues to be a leading public health concern that disproportionately affects low-income and minority children. The lack of resources and knowledge among low-income families plays an integral role in this epidemic. It has somewhat of a snowball effect. If a mother does not know what it takes to be healthy, then she cannot teach her children nor provide them with the proper nutrition they need. They, in turn, grow up not knowing, and when they eventually have a family they cannot teach their children, and the cycle continues. With this trend becoming more and more evident in the past few years, some states have taken proactive steps in an attempt to reverse this cycle.

Are Waivers an Option?

In October 2010, with the support of the state, Mayor Bloomberg sought federal permission to ban the purchase of soda and other sugared drinks with SNAP vouchers. In its effort to reduce growing obesity rates, this ban would have had a direct effect on the 1.7 million New Yorkers who receive SNAP benefits. The request was made to the USDA, the federal agency that finances and sets the rules for SNAP, and was part of a diligent anti-obesity movement by the mayor. Previously, Bloomberg was successful in enforcing stricter rules on the food sold in schools and barring restaurants from cooking with trans fats; however he was not as fortunate with the "no soda" proposal.

Under the mayor's proposal, SNAP benefits could not be used to purchase sweetened beverages containing more than 10 calories per 8-ounce serving. …

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