Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a final regulation that will require retailers who redeem Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to offer more healthy food options, including fresh produce.
Most retail chains, even individual store locations, have rules based on its customer mix, and there are positives and negatives to participating in the program.
Ideally, the program helps feed low income consumers, but too often consumers make bad food choices. This isn’t an argument against freedom for consumers to buy and eat what they want, but it is one for encouraging healthier choices if taxpayers are paying the bill.
The most recent USDA redemption data available from 2011 shows SNAP households buy fewer fruit and vegetables than non-SNAP households. The data shows both SNAP and non-SNAP households spend the most on meat, but SNAP households spend the next most on sweet beverages (9.3% of overall food spending), while vegetables come in at No. 3 (7.2%) and fruit No. 8 (4.7%).
Meanwhile, non-SNAP households have vegetables No. 2 (9.1%), fruit No. 4 (7.2%) and sweet beverages No. 5 (7.1%).
Of course, it’s not just food choices that make the difference. Access to healthy food is a big problem for low-income areas, and there’s a movement to improve these “food deserts.” There’s a chicken or the egg issue here.
Do low income areas not buy healthier food because they’re not there, or are healthier food options not available because consumers in low income areas don’t buy them?
Hopefully this change to the SNAP program to force more small retailers and convenience stores to carry healthier items will improve access to food such as fresh produce, and hopefully people will buy it.
Produce groups are optimistic the changes will improve nutrition for consumers and still allow these small retail stores to remain profitable. In 2014, the United Fresh Produce Association worked with the National Association of Convenience Stores to improve fresh and fresh-cut produce distribution supply chains so convenience stores can offer a wider variety of fresh produce.
It’s a small step, I think, but one toward better health and smarter business and government.