Digging into nutrition in SNAP

Why the ‘N’ in SNAP can be so fraught. Michigan seventh state to adopt universal free school meals. Study: Processed foods MIA from U.S. food policy.


Peru - Circa May 2018: A Sign at a Retailer - We Accept SNAP V

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Alright, let’s get to it –

Helena

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– Why the ‘N’ in SNAP can be so fraught

– Michigan seventh state to adopt universal free school meals

– Study: Processed foods MIA from U.S. food policy

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Digging into nutrition in SNAP

My exclusive last week on a new bill from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) aiming to measure the nutritional quality of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) sparked so many messages from you all that I figured it would be worth circling back to the issue.

First, a refresher: The legislation from this unlikely bipartisan duo would make improving diet quality a key goal of SNAP and require USDA to issue regular reports on what foods SNAP benefits are buying (in aggregate, not on a household level). It may sound simple, but it gets complicated (and politically fraught) fast – and wow, did you all have thoughts.

Here are some of the key themes that emerged from your emails, texts and Tweets:

Everyone is talking about restrictions: Though this new legislation – which seeks to hitch a ride with the forthcoming farm bill – does not limit, disincentivize or ban any foods from SNAP, it instantly set off a debate about restrictions, because many people see it as leading down that road. I saw Sen. Booker, in particular, taking heat on social media: “I can’t believe @corybooker can’t see how doing this is leading to use of this information in a negative manner,” one person lamented on Twitter. 

Bill supporters contend there are plenty of other things the sales data can be used for – guardrails on in-store marketing, better healthy food incentives, etc. – but restrictions are the elephant in the room.

Grassroots support: I got a lot of messages from folks who are not policy wonks, but just think making SNAP more focused on nutrition is a really good idea. They were also horrified by the fact that we’re spending billions in taxpayer dollars on things like soda amid a national health crisis. I heard this from a couple of current and former SNAP participants, too. 

Another common theme: Raise the benefits so healthier foods are more within reach, making any new guardrails less punitive. (The average benefit right now is $181 per person, per month – down substantially from the stepped up Covid-era emergency benefits.) 

Ag secretaries weigh in: Days after the Booker-Rubio bill came out, two former agriculture secretaries, Dan Glickman (Clinton admin) and Ann Veneman (Bush admin), wrote an op-ed supporting the legislation (and also reiterating their past support for cutting soda from SNAP). They believe a combination of incentives and disincentives is the best approach, noting: “A recent Morning Consult poll conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that nearly six in 10 SNAP participants, Republicans and Democrats equally and by a 2:1 margin, support a combined approach of additional benefits for the purchase of healthful items along with a reduction in benefits if unhealthy foods are purchased.” 

Oh, hell no: I got a handful of notes from people who feel strongly that this is just a terrible road to go down, and that restrictions are not only paternalistic and punitive, but also racist because communities of color have higher rates of SNAP participation due to long standing economic disparities. (The rates are disproportionate, but the SNAP population is about 37 percent white, 26 percent African American, 16 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 2 percent Native American. Roughly 16 percent of participants are categorized as “race unknown,” per USDA.)

This same tension has played out in the soda tax debate. Opponents argue sugary drink taxes are regressive (and they are), but proponents of the taxes argue that diet-related diseases like diabetes and obesity disproportionately harm communities of color and governments should try to minimize that harm.

Middle ground? Many of the folks I know in the anti-hunger world were privately groaning about the Booker-Rubio bill, like “here we go again!” – as what you can buy with SNAP is becoming a more regular part of farm bill debates. (Throwback to 2018 here.) One anti-hunger group, however, bucked the establishment and endorsed the bill: Hunger Free America

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, wrote to me right after the newsletter went out last week. He thought I’d be wondering why the group backed the bill. (And I was!) Berg posted a lengthy blog post explaining the decision. He noted the group remains fiercely opposed to restrictions, but supports the Booker-Rubio bill because of the overall nutrition focus and increased transparency. 

“While this bill doesn’t restrict what people can purchase with SNAP, some anti-hunger advocates worry that this bill will eventually lead to that, especially since Senator Rubio is a leading proponent of restricting food choices for SNAP recipients,” Berg wrote. “While Hunger Free America certainly understands those worries, we think the bill itself is worthy of support, and could potentially be used to later expand and strengthen SNAP, so we have endorsed it.”

Berg noted the group often hears from SNAP participants that the program should do more on both hunger and nutrition. 

“As for the data, as merely a good government matter, I think transparent public access to data on government-funded programs is almost always a good thing,” he added, arguing that the data could ultimately be used to increase SNAP benefits and enable better diets. “One major national food retailer told me privately that the top-purchased item with SNAP is a banana; if that is accurate program-wide, I think that would only help our case if it becomes public.”

(We don’t have any recent data on what SNAP participants are buying, which I went into a bit last week. A study from USDA based on data from 2011 found that soft drinks were the top item purchased with SNAP benefits.)

It’s complicated: Regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum, there is no question that restricting foods in SNAP would be very complicated. One reader wrote to me that I didn’t make this reality clear enough last week – it’s a fair point (though, again, this new bill does not ban or restrict anything). 

If, in theory, Congress were to direct USDA to actually do something like ban sugary drinks or unhealthy foods – overcoming fierce food and beverage industry lobbying – it would be tricky to figure out where to draw the lines. 

Take sweetened beverages, as just one example. SunnyD, which is marketed with oranges on the front and boasts 100% of your daily Vitamin C, barely contains any juice. Would that product be banned? How about Capri Sun? It’s made with juice concentrate and sugar. What percentage of juice is the cut off? Or do you just ban all juices? What about the low-income mom who’s asked to bring juice to her kid’s basketball game? You can go through this exercise with every category in the grocery store. And it’s easy to imagine the stigma associated with folks picking out the wrong items and having to put them back.  

Making a list: Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel – who never shies away from these fraught debates – made her own list of what she thought should be included in SNAP. Mostly staple foods, like produce, meat, grains, dairy, bread, etc., as well as some frozen meals, perhaps with nutrition requirements. I noticed crackers don’t make the cut. It’s easy to see how there would be intense disagreement on these things, especially when taxpayer dollars are buying the food.

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Michigan seventh state to adopt universal free school meals

Michigan recently became the seventh state to go for universal free school meals after the policy ended nationally September of last year

“Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bipartisan education budget Thursday guaranteeing free school meals for all students in public education,” per local Fox17. “The Michigan Executive Office of the Governor says Senate Bill 173 also puts the state on the path toward free pre-K.”

Notching wins: As I’ve written before, anti-hunger groups have been diligently working to expand universal school meals at the state level in the hopes that it will become less of a lift to do it nationally in the coming years. The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) keeps a map of action in the states

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Study: Processed foods MIA from U.S. food policy

A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that the U.S.doesn’t really have food policies that try to mitigate the health impact of processed food, unlike countries such as Belgium, Brazil and Israel. 

“In some countries, ultra-processed foods have been directly integrated into national dietary guidelines and school food programs, but in the U.S., few policies directly target ultra-processed foods,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and lead author of the study.

Processed food in the hot seat: If it seems like you’re hearing about processed food all the time now, it’s because you are. There are stories just about every week about the potential risks of ultra-processed foods, which make up the majority of the American diet at this point. 

This recent piece in Slate was pretty nuanced on the debate: Are processed foods really that bad? asks Tom Requarth. Medical News Today wrote about the recent USDA study on processed food that’s been heavily criticized. The journal Nature Food, meanwhile, ran a new article on the processed food industry’s growing influence in African countries. 

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What I’m reading

Ukrainian air defenses in Odesa outgunned as Russia targets global grain supply (CNN). “Ukraine has been struggling to repel a wave of Russian strikes against the southern city of Odesa, its air defenses unable to cope with the types of missiles that Moscow has used to pummel the region this week,” per the report. “Moscow launched an intense campaign of bombardment against Odesa, Mykolaiv and other settlements in southern Ukraine on Monday after Ukraine struck the key Crimea bridge. It launched more strikes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the strikes were in retaliation for the bridge attack, and claimed that it targeted facilities associated with Ukraine’s seaborne attack drones. But Ukraine said Russia has been striking civilian infrastructure associated with grain exports.”

CBO defends work on farm bill, declines to add staff (Agri-Pulse). “The director of the Congressional Budget Office [CBO] on Thursday pushed back against concerns that its analysts are taking too long to deliver farm bill cost estimates to the House and Senate Ag committees and said it wasn’t practical to add staff to deal with the legislation,” reports Philip Brasher. “‘For this reauthorization of the farm bill, CBO’s analysts have already provided more than 1,000 estimates. CBO expects to furnish hundreds more in the coming weeks and many more later in the legislative process,’ CBO Director Phillip Swagel said in a letter to the Ag committee leadership. The chairs and ranking members of the committees wrote Swagel on July 10, expressing concern about the ‘volume of outstanding requests’ for cost estimates and pressing him to increase the number of analysts working on the farm bill.”

As lab-grown meat hits menus, the next investor hurdle is scaling (Reuters). “Cell-cultivated meat companies could receive new investment since U.S. regulators cleared the product’s sale last month, but the sector must scale up and lower costs to seriously challenge conventional meat, said investors and major food companies,” reports Leah Douglas. “To be price competitive, cultivated meat must reach a production cost of $2.92 per pound …Upside, Believer and Good declined to share a per pound production cost for their products. Good spokesperson Andrew Noyes said the company is selling its chicken to its first restaurant client, José Andrés‘ China Chilcano in Washington, D.C., for ‘about the same price as premium conventional chicken.’ Believer CEO Gustavo Burger said the company hopes to reach price parity with organic chicken by the end of 2024.”

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