Essex Street Grocery

Can SNAP Food Assistance Work Smarter?

SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the backbone of government efforts to fight hunger. So, naturally, everybody has ideas about ways to make it work smarter. And in a large supplement to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a diverse group of nutrition activists put forward their ideas and analyses.

The central idea is that SNAP should promote good nutrition as well as food security.

The debate around ways to pursue this aspiration has a long and tortured history. Some folks think the program should simply ban SNAP from paying for junk food, like soda, chips, and sweet snacks. Others have pointed out that restrictions might not work as intended. Instead, they recommend incentives and other strategies to promote better nutrition within SNAP. Barry Popkin outlines these issues and their history in a sweeping commentary. He concludes that only experimental research can provide definitive answers to these questions.

In another commentary, the Rudd Center‘s Marlene Schwartz does a fine job of explaining the need to move beyond these tortured debates toward workable solutions.

The funny thing is that this publication was organized by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM is a controversial organization that promotes animal rights and vegan diets. PCRM has mocked people with obesity, suggesting that eating meat and cheese causes their problems. Fighting hunger and chronic diseases has never been a core issue for this organization. PCRM seems more interested in using hunger as a platform to promote plant-based diets.

In parallel with the AJHP publication, PCRM President Neal Barnard published a commentary in The Hill. There, he equated meat and cheese with candy and soda. He urged policymakers to take such “junk food” out of SNAP.

Not long ago, PCRM sued the USDA and HHS, disputing the validity of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Their gripe? These guidelines dropped warnings about dietary cholesterol. PCRM said that the egg industry was behind the change in cholesterol guidance. But the fact is that outdated warnings about dietary cholesterol simply do not hold up under scientific scrutiny. Regardless, PCRM does not want people eating eggs.

So it’s odd to see PCRM calling for better alignment between SNAP and the dietary guidelines they so recently disputed. Hunger and food security are complex issues. Many organizations – FRAC, for example – work tirelessly to end hunger. If PCRM had wanted to really engage on these issues, we wonder why they did not bring those organizations into this conversation.

Sometimes, dietary ideology doesn’t mix well with sound nutrition policy.

Click here for the full AJPM supplement and here for further perspective from FRAC.

Essex Street Grocery, photograph © Roey Ahram / flickr

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January 24, 2017