Who Gets to Decide What Low-Income Americans Eat?

DinnerWith 35.7 percent of America’s adults and one third of America’s youth qualifying as overweight or obese, we’re all getting a lot of advice about how we should be eating. This question becomes particularly tricky for low-income Americans who receive food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), formerly known as food stamps. Traditionally, SNAP recipients have been restricted from using their benefits for alcohol, tobacco, household products (i.e., cleaning products or pet food), medicines, prepared food, and restaurant meals.

There is one major exception to the restaurant meal restriction, however. As Barbara Jones described in her recent Clearinghouse Review article titled Should States Allow Poor People to Use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Benefits at Fast-Food Chains?, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Restaurant Meals Program allows elderly, disabled, and homeless SNAP recipients to use their benefits in restaurants. Fast-food restaurants would like to receive the extra revenue provided by the Restaurant Meals Program, but only a few states currently allow SNAP participants to use their benefits at fast-food restaurants. 

Some anti-hunger advocates argue that Restaurant Meals Program participants should be able to spend their benefits at fast-food outlets because many low-income Americans—particularly homeless ones—lack the food preparation and storage space necessary to cook for themselves. Moreover, some low-income communities only have fast-food restaurants and do not have any supermarkets. In these "food deserts," fast food might be the only option for many people.

Health experts argue against expanding the Restaurant Meals Program to include fast-food outlets, citing the many diseases linked to fast-food consumption. In fact, many of the diseases related to fast-food consumption (diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease) are pervasive in the disabled and elderly populations to begin with. Unsurprisingly, many advocates scoff at the idea of allowing people to use SNAP benefits to eat food that is dangerous for their health.

The Restaurant Meals Program is only one strategy being used to help feed hungry Americans. Communities across the country are trying to develop alternative programs that will increase low-income Americans’ access to healthy food. From farmers’ markets to urban gardens, creative advocates are thinking of new ways to help low-income Americans eat healthfully. That’s not to say that federal, state, and local governments are not thinking outside the box as well. The New York City Department of Health’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative is trying to increase the amount of healthy options in New York City’s food deserts, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently awarded $12 million to the New Jersey Food Access Initiative.

Clearinghouse Review will explore innovation and conflicts related to food and hunger policy in its 2012 special issue, which will be published in the fall. With articles about SNAP benefits, low-income seniors’ access to food, fairness in food production, using food banks effectively, and many other topics, the 2012 special issue of Clearinghouse Review will be a must-read for advocates looking for new ways to help low-income Americans feed their families. 

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