Got Science? Podcast | Episode 30 The Evidence Is In: SNAP Works

April 3, 2018

You may know it as food stamps. Millions of Americans know it as the reason their families won’t go hungry tonight. Food systems and health analyst Sarah Reinhardt knows that it needs to be strengthened, not weakened, in the next Farm Bill. 

In this episode Sarah Reinhardt talks about:

  • The Farm Bill and its different pieces
  • Common misconceptions about the SNAP program
  • Important unaddressed causes of food insecuity
  • What sorts of households participate in SNAP
  • What a registered dietitian eats for dinner

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Full Transcript

Today, millions of Americans will be asking hard questions about food. I don’t mean “what kind of takeout should we order?” or “should I pay a little more for the organic broccoli?”I mean really hard questions, like “Is there enough food in the house to last till my next paycheck?” or “Do I buy groceries or pay the heating bill?”

If you’ve ever had to ask questions like these, you’ve experienced food insecurity. And for too many economically struggling Americans, food insecurity is a constant threat.

One federal program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—also known as food stamps—was created to reduce that threat and help ensure that all Americans can afford to put food on the table for their families.

SNAP is part of the Farm Bill, a gigantic legislative package that addresses almost every imaginable aspect of our food system—from crop insurance to school lunches. It so happens that the Farm Bill is up for renewal this year, and as we recorded this podcast, Congress was about to kick into high gear on it.

In debates about Farm Bill policy, SNAP has become a favorite target. Critics claim that the program is wasteful and prone to abuse. But are those charges supported by facts? What does the science say?

To answer this and other questions, I sat down with my colleague Sarah Reinhardt, food systems and health analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. She helped me understand why many so-called SNAP reforms are solving problems that don’t exist…why many food system workers can’t afford the food they help to produce…and what a registered dietitian eats for dinner.

Colleen: Hi, Sarah, and thanks for joining me on the Got Science? Podcast.

Sarah: Thanks for having me, Colleen.

Colleen: So I want to talk to you today about food, healthy food. And one of the programs in the Farm Bill that helps feed millions of families, the SNAP program. But first, can you just give our listeners a very brief description of the Farm Bill?

Sarah: Sure. So the Farm Bill is a big, very, very big piece of omnibus legislation that gets passed every five years or so. And when I say omnibus, that means it contains a lot of different things. So there are 12 different titles which basically means 12 sections of the Farm Bill and nutrition is one of them. So we'll be zeroing in on SNAP, which is a very large part of the nutrition title and a very large part of the Farm Bill in its entirety.

Colleen: Most people know the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP as Food Stamps. So can you explain what SNAP is and if there's a difference between SNAP and Food Stamps?

Sarah: So it's essentially a different name for the same program. SNAP is one of the largest components of our federal safety net. It provides monthly benefits to low-income families and they can use those to buy any type of food at participating retailers. So anywhere from grocery stores to farmers markets that accept SNAP. And it's true that a lot of people still know the program as the Food Stamp Program and that dates back to the '60s when Kennedy authorized the first Food Stamp pilot program.

That's what the actual benefits look like. There were little pieces of paper, a lot like food rationing stamps that you actually had to tear off and hand to the cashier. So one major thing that's changed since the days of Food Stamps is the technology. As you probably know, the system is now electronic and people can have their benefits loaded onto an EBT or electronic benefit card that looks just like a credit card. So not only is this an easier way for people to pay, but it also goes a long way in reducing the stigma of the program.

So instead of tearing off stamps and handing that to the cashier, you get to go through the line and swipe a card like everybody else. And that shame that a lot of people associate with getting help getting their groceries from these federal assistance programs, that's actually largely also why the program changed it's name to SNAP in 2008. It was to help kind of shake off some of that old stigma around participating in the Food Stamp Program which the USDA really wanted to discourage.

Colleen: So is SNAP a large expenditure in terms of the dollar amount. Is it a large portion of the Farm Bill?

Sarah: It is. So SNAP makes up about 80% to 84% of the budget. And last Farm Bill, I believe the total came in around $450 billion for the entire Farm Bill over the five years. So we're talking about a good chunk of change.

Colleen: So, is that money well spent?

Sarah: Yes, yeah. And that's an interesting question. And it's kind of like asking if a Hospital Bill is money well spent. It's not necessarily a fun thing to spend money on but a broken arm is a broken arm and if I value my health, I'm going to write that check. And that's kind of how I look at these programs. Would it be great if we had fewer families struggling to make ends meet and the cost of this program were lower? Yeah, absolutely. But when you're talking about a federal assistance program that keeps people out of poverty, helps put food on the table, that money is a no-brainer to me.

There's absolutely no reason that in one of the most resource abundant countries in the world we should be sitting back while anybody goes without food. And until we start to make some real progress on some of our bigger problems, the real root causes of poverty and hunger. Things like income inequality, things like is institutional racism, the cost of health care, we need to make sure that that safety net stays in place.

Colleen: So how do we know it's working?

Sarah: Yes, I brought evidence. I lose my job if I don't get it.

Colleen: You have to have the evidence. We want the evidence.

Sarah: So I mentioned that the poverty does alleviate poverty and food insecurity. In 2014, the program lifted about 4.7 million people out of poverty, including more than 2.1 million children who make up about 4 in 10 SNAP users. And it resulted in food insecurity rates about 30% lower or up to 30% lower than you'd expect. And we know that for kids, the health benefits of this program can start in euro.

So pregnant women participating in SNAP can reduce their risk of having low birth weight babies by up to 23%. And kids who get SNAP benefits when they're young have lower rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome as they become older. So, and if you look at adults using SNAP, you also tend to see fewer hospitalizations and decrease in medical costs as a result.

Colleen: So what is metabolic syndrome?

Sarah: Metabolic syndrome is kind of a group of different health conditions that put you at higher risk for diseases.

Colleen: Okay, would that be like diabetes?

Sarah: Yeah, that would be one of the health conditions. Yes.

Colleen: So, we know that some people in Congress are trying to reduce SNAP funding or weaken the program in other ways. What is most worrisome about the threats to SNAP right now? I mean, what happens if they succeed?

Sarah: So one thing that we should really be worrying about, you really do have to pick and choose these days, is that Congress will be asking states to shoulder more of the burden of funding in terms of SNAP. This is something we saw in Trump's budget last year and we saw it come up again in the budget just a few weeks ago. So they want to cut costs by asking states to contribute more to the program. And the reality is states are all ready strapped, they won't be able to do it and so fewer people will be able to access the program.

So fewer people will be able to access the program and it's going to hit particularly hard in the states that are all ready under resource. So just to give a sense of the magnitude of how big this burden would be, the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities estimates that transferring about a quarter of SNAP costs to states in a state like Texas would be equivalent to what the state pays toward the annual salary of 64,000 teachers. In Pennsylvania, just to give another example. If the state had to pay 25% of its SNAP costs, it would be more than twice what the state spends on community colleges right now.

So that's a huge burden that the federal government would be transferring to states. And in addition to burdening the states financially, that would also change fundamentally the structure of SNAP. So right now it's an entitlement program and that means that the amount of money available corresponds to the need. So if, you know, 10 of us in the room need it and 11 of us need it next year, there's money for that extra person. There's money available for people who are eligible. And that's really important, not only because it's, you know, responding to the need, but it's also providing a huge economic stimulus when the economy is weak.

So if you're changing the program so that there's no longer money available for everyone but rather it's dependent on state budgets, you're taking away a really important path to recovery during economic recession. And, of course, we can't talk about the threats to SNAP without mentioning the real risk of Congress imposing restrictions on eligibility. One primary vehicle for that would be to increase work requirements and implement things like drug tests. Both of these things they're solutions to problems that don't exist.

USDA data shows us that most people who can work do work so more stringent work requirements. They're not a path to self-sufficiency, they're just a shortcut to funding cuts. And drug testing programs when they've been implemented in similar programs, they've been incredibly costly and they've yielded really low rates of drug abuse. So kind of looking for problems that don't exist with those answers.

Colleen: So I think you've just got to some of the most common misconceptions about SNAP. Are there other things that you've encountered out there?

Sarah: Yes. This is a big pet peeve of mine. There's still somehow, Colleen, after years and years, there's still somehow this lingering Reagan-era rhetoric that I think drives a lot of the misconceptions about SNAP today, about so-called the inner city welfare queens that are somehow gaming the system. And even though that rhetoric was A, incredibly racist and B, proven over and over again to be, you know, completely non-factual, somehow it's stuck.

And we're still fighting the notion that SNAP is a program for the urban poor and we're still fighting the notion that people are rampantly abusing the program. And the reality is that rates of fraud and abuse are incredibly low in this program and that SNAP benefits people of every race, every zip code, every political persuasion all across this country.

Colleen: When you when you look at the demographics, what's the balance between rural and inner city? Do you feel like, is it spread out or are there any surprising results there?

Sarah: So in some senses, it tends to be apples and oranges a little bit when you look at urban and rural use of SNAP because the population density is so much higher in urban areas. But what you can do is if you look at household participation rates, so the percent of households in a given area. That's, you know, they're using the SNAP program, you actually see that participation rates in rural areas are higher. Those are around 16%. And in more metro areas, urban areas, you see those rates hover around 13%. So a bigger proportion so to speak of rural residents who are using SNAP. And that's actually some of the research that we've been working on recently is to be able to highlight that this is a program that's being used really just throughout the country in all these different areas and zip codes and in different communities.

And so, what we've done is we've dug into the data, FRAC, the Food Research and Action Center published a great map last year of all the different household participation rates by county and, you know, showed this difference between rural and urban. But what we at UCS have done is to dig into that more and really look at what it looks like across all rural counties. And what we find is that among the top 50 counties with the highest percentage of households utilizing SNAP, a full 48 are rural. It's just incredible. It's really staggering to look at.

Colleen: Wow. Are there long-term studies that have been done that show, that kids are healthier, Are there stats like that?

Sarah: We do have data that shows that, you know, depending on age, depending on demographic, there are different benefits to SNAP use. So for kids, you see it where if they receive SNAP benefits in utero. So if their mom is receiving SNAP benefits, they end up less likely to develop metabolic syndrome. Which is, you know, a host of chronic conditions that predispose you more to diseases like type 2 diabetes.

You know, kids tend to do better in school, kids tend to have better health outcomes and lower risk of obesity. And if you look at parents, your parents were adults. You tend to see some different statistics but among adults, you see lower rates of hospitalization primarily due to kind of a decrease in fluctuation of diabetes symptoms, and you also tend to see some lower health care costs.


Colleen: It sounds like SNAP is working and it's a good program to have and it should continue but what would you do to improve it?

Sarah: It's a great question. Is it up to me? Do I...

Colleen: Yes.

Sarah: Do I have that power?

Colleen: Yes, if I gave you the power to improve SNAP, what would you do?

Sarah: It's a good day.

Colleen: So we know that SNAP is good for families, we know it's good for the economy. There's this often quoted statistic that, you know, says for every $1 in SNAP benefits that are spent, there's an additional $1.80 that's generated in economic benefit. But we're really just figuring out how to harness that economic benefit and how to make sure that it's getting circulated back into local economies and going into the pockets of our farmers and our food workers. And some of the programs we've been starting to see in the Farm Bill over the last 5 to 10 years.

The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive programs, or FINI is a really great example, are figuring out that if you give people the opportunity to spend more of their SNAP dollars at places like farmers markets, it's not only good for their diets but it's really good for area farmers and food producers, too. And this is really important, not just because we need to be, you know, growing our rural economies and investing in our communities, but because we really need to be taking care of the people that produce our food. It comes as a surprise to a lot of people that a lot of the folks that work along the food chain from farm workers, to truck drivers can't actually afford a lot of the foods that they're producing and have a really hard time feeding their families.

We know that they're relying on Food Stamps at higher rates than the general population. And it's one of the really just unbelievable injustices that you see in the food system particularly because so many food chain workers are also people of color. So if it's up to me, I'd like to see a lot more funding, a lot more support, go to these programs that are helping us reinvest SNAP dollars into our farmers, our food workers, and our local and regional economies.

Colleen: So can people use their SNAP money at farmers markets?

Sarah: Yes, a lot of farmers markets. This has been a really great thing that's happened over the last decade is that a lot of farmers markets have gotten the equipment that they need and the technology to be able to accept SNAP benefits with people's EBT cards which is a really neat thing. And that effort is really supported, of course, by, you know, grants and initiatives to get more technology, to get greater broadband, rural Internet access in place.

Colleen: So I realize it's probably too early to have any research on that but is there any way to tell if people are using their SNAP benefits at farmers markets?

Sarah: Sure. Yeah, the data looks really impressive when you look at the dollars that are being spent at farmers markets. I don't have the dollar amount in front of me but it's one of those things that's just taken off exponentially in the last five years or so. And programs like the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program, or FINI, have been incredibly successful at getting more people into markets and helping them double the value of their SNAP dollars there.

Colleen: So they get FINI, extra FINI dollars for their SNAP dollars if they are using them at a farmers market?

Sarah: Yeah.

Colleen: That's good.

Sarah: So it depends on the program but FINI funds projects that will generally provide some sort of financial incentive to help people spend more money on produce at farmers markets. So if I'm, you know, a SNAP shopper and I'm going to a local market that participates in, you know, the Double Up Food Bucks program that's the name of one that operates or started in southeastern Michigan.

If I'm a SNAP user and I take my EBT card and I'm going to spend $5 on, you know, some local lettuce and potatoes. I can double that amount if there's a Double Up Food Bucks program operating there. I can double that amount so then I have $10 to spend on local produce. So, it's really this neat win-win where you're incentivizing healthy food purchases and also making more money available to local farmers.

Colleen: Yeah, it sounds like that will take care of the debate back and forth about whether SNAP dollars should be restricted. And it sounds like this program would naturally take care of that. You'll get double and you can buy healthy food. there's always a thin line between, you know, you want people to eat healthy food but you don't want to dictate to them what they can buy with their SNAP dollars.

Sarah: Sure. And incentives are a really important part of that conversation. I think you can't have a conversation without talking about financial incentives and programs like FINI. And, you know, talking about restrictions and how to help people eat healthier diets, it's no secret that most Americans are struggling to achieve a healthy diet. And we know that fewer than 1 in 10 of SNAP users are not consuming, you know, the amount of fruits and vegetables that the dietary guidelines tell us to. And one thing I think we need to be really wary of when we talk about food restrictions is the fact that most families on SNAP still won't have enough in their food budget to purchase a healthy diet. And that's whether you take the sugar-sweetened beverages, or the candy bars out or not.

There was a really good study out of one of our colleagues at UCS and the University of North Carolina that looked at what the actual cost of a healthy diet was according to the dietary guidelines and taking into account all the time it takes to actually prepare that food from scratch. And what they found was that the current benefit levels that SNAP recipients get are just nowhere close to enough. You know, it's one thing that tell people to eat healthy and it's another thing entirely to make sure they actually have the resources and the means to do it.

So if we're going to talk about restricting the foods that people are able to purchase with SNAP benefits, we need to make sure we're also talking about the ways that we can provide enough resources. Either through, you know, increased benefit levels or incentive programs that would actually help people achieve healthy diets. And if we're able to do that, I think that would be a monumental step toward amplifying the health benefits of the program and really supporting public health broadly in the U.S.

Colleen: So when you look at the USDA MyPlate which outlines a dinner plate and it shows you the portions of grains, vegetables, meat or protein and fruit that we should eat. The U.S. government is not actually growing that, what's on that plate.

Sarah: No, there are no MyPlate farms, unfortunately.

Colleen: But the fruit and vegetables that we grow are a tiny, tiny percentage of what U.S. farmers grow, right?

Sarah: Yeah, yeah. A lot of our cropland is dedicated to commodity crops like corn and soy and same goes for our investments in agriculture.

Colleen: So where are we supposed to get those fruits and vegetables from?

Sarah: That's a great question. Really, it's almost a two-way street. I hesitate to say this but just as there isn't quite enough of the right kind of food, so to speak, on the supply side, there isn't necessarily enough demand either. I mean by and large when you look at the fruits and vegetables that Americans are eating, it tends to be things like lettuce, and potatoes, and tomatoes, and I'll let you guess how much of that is pizza sauce. But so it is a little bit of a two-way street.

I wouldn't necessarily point the finger at, you know, either side but we do have to make a cultural shift in some sense and an educational effort to really, you know, bolster that demand for the right kinds of foods in our diet. It's more of a systemic problem than anything. You see us investing our food dollars in one place and then our agricultural dollars in another place. And, you know, sometimes those investments are even contradictory to the fact that fruits and vegetables are considered specialty crops even though MyPlate says they should make up half of our plate, right? There's this dissonance there between our agricultural policy our food policy.

And I also think we need to be really cognizant of the ways in which, you know, programs outside the Farm Bill and investments outside the Farm Bill are going to end up impacting those same people that are relying on SNAP benefits. So, you know, you can't talk about tax policies, about health care policies and the way that, you know, the current administration is approaching those without starting to see the impacts trickle into, you know, the need that you see in SNAP populations. It's just these things are all related and we have to start addressing them as such.

Colleen: So it sounds like there isn't a holistic, the Farm Bill. There's nobody looking at the complete picture.

Sarah: Right.

Colleen: It's everybody's got their bit of it and they're, you know, fighting and struggling to keep their bit of it.

Sarah: Yeah.

Colleen: Even though as things change and evolve, our needs are... Well, I don't think our needs are actually all that different. I don't think we've been producing the food that we should be eating for quite some time.

Sarah: Right. Yeah, and the interests are... Yeah, have become so polarized because everyone's fighting for that slice of the pie that it becomes really difficult. As as well as, you know, as well as bipartisanship can work, it does work sometimes in the Farm Bill. I mean there are these two different sides that will come together and support each other. But even still, there is no comprehensive holistic perspective on what makes a healthy food system. It's very much, here's how we talk about nutrition and here's how we talk about agriculture and we don't often have to think about them in the same sphere.

Colleen: Right. All right. So what are you having for dinner tonight?

Sarah: I get asked that a lot. I think tonight, I will have a bowl of bibimbap.

Colleen: Are you going to make that?

Sarah: I have all the ingredients in my fridge.

Colleen: Wow.

Sarah: It's probably a horribly culturally appropriative version of bibimbap. I'm not claiming it's authentic but...

Colleen: I'm impressed though. That's way more ambitious than my dinners usually really are. Wow. I usually go for salad with some kind of protein.

Sarah: It's delightful.

Colleen: Yeah.

Sarah: I'll be over. I've scrapped the bibimbop, I'm coming over. I'll see you later.

Colleen: Excellent. Well, thanks for taking some time to talk to us today.

Sarah: Thank you.

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Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald