The food industry as a whole is often shrouded with criticism regarding the high price of fresh produce, condemning the nation's poorest to a diet of cheap, processed, and nutritionally-lacking products. This accusation is not without reason — a few apples cost the same amount as twenty snack bags of potato chips. For a parent trying to pack multiple school lunches or provide meals for an entire family, it's nearly impossible to purchase wholesome and healthy options without breaking the bank.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for the almost 42 million Americans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. For a family of four, the maximum SNAP allotment for an entire month is $649 or $163 per week. This may seem high, but relatively expensive items like baby food, dairy products, and red meat can quickly drive the available funds down to dangerously low levels. In practice, the average SNAP allotment for a family of four is much lower at $504 per month.
These budgetary restrictions often translate into meals that lack the nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. One study showed that SNAP recipients do not necessarily eat less calories than a higher-income individual, but instead have a lower-quality diet that strays far from a whole slew of federally-recommended guidelines. Those receiving SNAP benefits are also more likely to consume higher amounts of sugar and smaller quantities of fruits and vegetables--a dangerous combination that can lead to a self-reinforcing cycle of sugar addiction.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the SNAP program, has recently distributed $31 million in grant money intended to promote healthy eating amongst recipients. Some of these, including the Florida-based Fresh Access Bucks program, doubles the value of their food dollars when used to purchase fresh produce at state-wide farmers markets. Other programs like the Buy One Fresh/Get One Local initiative grant an equivalent coupon for every SNAP dollar spent on a fresh fruits and vegetables.
All of these grants receive their funding through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program, and each project must explicitly increase the sale of fruits and vegetables to SNAP users by "providing incentives at the point of purchase." Given these restrictions, it is not surprising that a large majority of the projects hinge on the presence of a local, SNAP-authorized farmers market to provide the produce.
According to the USDA's website, there are 3, 616 farmers markets nationwide that currently accept SNAP benefits. While this is a nearly five-fold increase since 2008, it would be irresponsible to use the current numbers as an acceptable stopping point. The distribution of SNAP-authorized farmers markets is geographically imbalanced. California alone contains 505 of these markets, yet Alaska has just 16. This isn't just a matter of state size either — Hawaii has 56 locations providing affordable fruits and vegetables, and even Washington D.C. contains 35 different options. Wyoming has just 10, and North Dakota enters single digits with a mere seven SNAP-authorized farmers markets.
Even within each state, many of the USDA-sponsored programs are contingent on SNAP recipients living within a reasonable distance to a farmers market. Public transportation may be expensive or existent in some areas, and the prices of produce may fluctuate with annual weather conditions, varying costs of living, or even between vendors. Many farmers markets are also seasonal and lack the space or ability to operate indoors, especially in states with particularly harsh winters or dry summers.
The USDA is well-intentioned in its desire to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables for the nation's poorest, especially given the large amount of unhealthy sweetened beverages purchased by SNAP-households. However, the rapid increase in SNAP-authorized farmers markets should be seen as a stepping stone, and not an endpoint, for the USDA's endeavor. A USDA-mandated effort in rural areas or cities plagued by harsher weather would be a logical next step. After all, the self-proclaimed mission of the SNAP program is in part to "improve the nutritional status of its participants" — an area with much room for improvement.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.