Eating Our Own: Food Stamps in Food Deserts

Don’t miss this insightful piece in the Las Vegas Sun, “Experiencing hunger in Las Vegas.”  The article is especially useful for those who think food stamps are a giveaway to lazy people — try feeding your family on $3.39 per day, or about $105.09 per month. It’s also time to debunk some common myths and urban legends about the food stamp program.

Myth:  Food Stamps cause obesity.   Right wing news outlets jumped on a study by a University of Maryland researcher which purported to connect the rate of obesity in the United States with food stamps.   What should have been a red flag were the researcher’s initial assumptions that (1) “In a time of mass obesity, encouraging the poor to consume more food makes no sense at all,” said the researcher, University of Maryland Professor Douglas Besharov.”  And, (2)  “Food stamps and other federal meal programs, he said, were launched at a time when hunger was a serious threat to the underprivileged. Today most of the poor have no problem getting enough to eat, according to Besharov.” [Fox]

The first and most obvious problem is that Correlation Is Not Causation.  Arguing that food stamps cause obesity is like proposing that gasoline purchases cause automobile accidents.  More credible research suggests that women participating in food stamp programs are at greater risk for obesity than men or children, and this hints at possible factors not attended to in the anti-food stamp arguments.  For example, are there genetic factors involved? Are there dissimilar levels of daily exercise?  Eating patterns?  Level of nutritional information in the home?

Another line of attack says that since food stamps can only be used for food the recipients are encouraged to purchase more groceries and therefore are at greater risk for obesity.  Stop. Think.  Expenditure doesn’t necessarily equate to Over Consumption.  There is a better explanation:

“But even if receiving food stamp benefits leads participants to spend more on food, it does not mean that the additional spending results in overconsumption and obesity. It is possible that food stamp benefits allow people to choose a different bundle of foods than they otherwise would. For example, participants may shift spending toward relatively more expensive foods that were previously out of reach (e.g., fresh meats versus canned beans or fresh fruit and vegetables instead of canned items). Or, since food stamps can be redeemed for food only in grocery stores, participation in the program may shift a household’s food spending toward foods prepared and consumed at home, as opposed to food away from home. In either case, an increase in food expenditures would not necessarily lead to overconsumption of calories or a poorer diet.”  [ERS usda]

Myth: Poor people can get plenty to eat. Lets make the same “deal” proposed by the initial article [LVSun] and make the logical assumption that food insecurity in the United States isn’t comparable to food insecurity in the Southern Sudan.  Those unwilling to make such a “deal” are in essence proposing that SNAP be available only to the 5% of Americans who, without assistance, could not put food on the table.  [TDB] To check for a bit of numerical bias, let’s rephrase that and say the advocates of profound cuts to SNAP assistance are saying that we need only provide assistance to a putative 16,500,000 people.   Now which number sounds like greater evidence for severe food insecurity in the U.S?  That 5% of our population is very severely food insecure? Or, that 16,500,000 Americans are very severely food insecure?

As the chart illustrates, there are three levels of food security definitions.  Food secure is obvious. We can drill down on other categorizations.  In general, “Food insecure” means that at some point during the year a household could not obtain enough food because of insufficient resources.  “Low food security” is defined as: “These food-insecure households obtained enough food to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake by using a variety of coping strategies, such as eating less varied diets, participating in Federal food assistance programs, or getting emergency food from community food pantries.” [USDA]

The severity of the situation informs the Very Low categorical definition: “In these food-insecure households, normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” [USDA] In short, someone (or everyone) in the household went to bed hungry.

If 5.4% of the American population (or 17,820,000) is experiencing ‘hunger’ then it’s readily apparent that not all poor people can get “plenty to eat.”

Myth: All supermarkets are created equal.  Those comfortably ensconced in high income suburbs probably aren’t familiar with grocery stores in which you can find any kind of lettuce you want as long as it’s Iceberg.  Access to a variety of nutritious food is an important, but often overlooked factor.

Avoiding  a ‘food desert’ requires thinking in 3D:  There has to be a supermarket with a substantial offering of nutritious foods, and there has to be a way to get to it.  Of all U.S. households, 2.3 million (2.2%) live more than one mile from a supermarket, and do not have access to a vehicle to get there. Another 3.4% live within one half a mile or one mile from a market, and don’t have access to a vehicle to get there. [ERS pdf] It doesn’t help to have a grocery store in the area if you can’t get there.   However, most SNAP participants are making the effort, 86% redeem SNAP benefits at supermarkets or large grocery chain stores, which are an average of 4.9 miles from home. [ERS pdf]

Those unsure that “food deserts” exist may wish to consult the Food Environment Atlas,  Google Earth it isn’t but a couple of clicks on the interactive map will tell us that in Clark County as of 2006 there were 5,766 households with no car and with the nearest grocery over a mile away.  In Washoe County there were 1,402 families in the same straits.  Nye County had 506 families in that category, Humboldt had 152, and Elko had 302.

Perhaps if we’re serious about promoting better eating habits it might do to think equally seriously about our public transportation systems?  Or, how we  encourage the placement of full service food marketers in urban areas?

We do need to be careful that some in our current over-heated political environment don’t take satirist Jonathan Swift’s 1729 Modest Proposal too seriously: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust. ” [Gutenberg]


Recommended reading:  “Food Stamps and Obesity,” Amber Waves, ERS USDA, June 2008.  Steven Cuellar, “Do food stamps cause overconsumption?” Sonoma State University, March 2003. (pdf)  FNS/USDA “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, “Obesity, Poverty, and Participation,” February 2005. (pdf) VerPleog, Mancino, Lin, “Food Stamps and Obesity,” Amber Waves, ERS USDA, February 2006.  Shari Roan, “Obesity Rates in US…leveling off,” LA Times, January 17, 2012.  Drenowski & Specter, “Poverty and Obesity: The role of energy density, energy costs,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 2004.

Claudia Kalb, “Food Insecurity Rising in America,” The Daily Beast (Newsweek), August 2010.   USDA, “Food Security in the U.S. – Statistics and Graphics,” September 7, 2011., “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well Being,” Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011.   CDC, “Food Deserts,” feature article links.  Economic Research Service, “Access to affordable and nutritious food,” USDA, June 2009. (pdf) Chapter 5: “Food Access and Its Relationship to Food Choice,” ERS, USDA, June 2009. (pdf)  Chapter 6: The Economics of Supermarket and Grocery Store Locations,” ERS, USDA, June 2009. (pdf)  ERS Maps, “Food Environment Atlas,” USDA.

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