Understanding the Farm Bill: What's SNAP Got to Do With It?

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to help out at the Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis, one of the area markets that allows patrons to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly called Food Stamps) benefits to purchase fresh produce. Seeing firsthand how Farm Bill legislation is put into practice was a great reminder of how something as seemingly arcane as the Farm Bill can actually affect our neighborhoods, and of the kind of improvements we can make in the 2012 Farm Bill.

As I mentioned in my previous post, nutrition programs account for a surprising two-thirds of Farm Bill spending. Low-income and emergency food assistance, nutrition education, and several farmers’ market programs are all governed under the Farm Bill. (Some other familiar nutrition programs, such as those for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the School Lunch Program, are regulated by the Child Nutrition Act, separate from the Farm Bill.)

SNAP is by far the largest of these programs, making up 95% of nutrition spending in the Farm Bill. The first Food Stamp program was a Depression-era program intended to aid struggling consumers and farmers: participants received stamps redeemable for food of their choosing and surplus crops (its name was changed to SNAP in the last Farm Bill because the program now uses a debit card system (EBT) instead of stamps). In its current form, SNAP provides monthly cash benefits for food purchase to eligible low-income individuals. Since no eligible person is denied benefits, spending on SNAP changes based on how many people participate and how much they receive. SNAP has become increasingly important (and expensive) given the economic downturn. Participation is at an all-time high, yet as of 2005, only 65% of eligible households participated in SNAP.

SNAP is a politically popular program (few senators want to come out against helping constituents put food on the table), and recent iterations of the Farm Bill have increased benefits and expanded eligibility. However, SNAP is not without controversy. It’s accepted that SNAP benefits increase the amount of money a household spends on food, but whether SNAP benefits improve nutrition is another matter, and data are limited and conflicting. SNAP is designed to make up the difference between the amount of monthly income a household can afford to spend on food (usually estimated to be 30%) and the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet. This is based on the Thrifty Food Plan, the USDA’s grocery list of foods that meet the Dietary Guidelines on a budget. Some people say that SNAP benefits aren’t large enough to allow participants to purchase nutritious foods; a dollar buys more calories in the candy aisle than it does in the produce section. Others believe that SNAP benefit levels are sufficient, but focus should instead be on nutrition education efforts to help people make healthier choices.

Another source of conflict is the regulation regarding what items can be purchased with SNAP benefits. SNAP participants may use benefits to purchase foods that are prepared and eaten at home, a list that excludes alcohol, tobacco products, and prepared foods, but includes candy and soda. So, salad bars are out but Snickers bars are in, a policy that may not make sense for a nutrition program.

Although SNAP makes up most of the nutrition spending in the Farm Bill, several other programs have been added or expanded in recent years. For example, the Community Food Projects competitive grant program provides funds for local projects designed to tackle nutrition and food access issues, making farm to school programs, farmers’ markets, and community gardens possible. In the last Farm Bill, this program was made permanent and funded at $5 million a year. Additionally, the 2008 Farm Bill increased funding for the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which provides vouchers for fresh produce redeemable at farmers’ markets and CSAs to low-income seniors, and included money to expand the use of EBT cards at farmers’ markets, allowing more people to use SNAP benefits at their neighborhood markets.

It’s programs like these, that help farmers connect with consumers and city folk connect with their food, that we need to see more of in the next Farm Bill.


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Ann Butkowski is happy to be back in her native Minnesota after spending the last two years in Boston. She’s learning to bike the streets of Minneapolis and grow tomatoes in her backyard. Ann has a master’s degree in nutrition science, but doesn’t let that stop her from eating ice cream right out of the carton.