Food Insecurity Won’t Be Fixed In Just a SNAP

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is a government program that provides food assistance to qualifying low-income individuals in order to mitigate food insecurity. In 1933, as a way to alleviate the struggle farmers were having selling excess crop supply, the Federal government purchased these commodities and distributed them among under-nourished communities.

The program today has certain requirements for those who can receive SNAP benefits and Arkansas’ are among the highest. These barriers prevent many eligible Arkansans from accessing the important nutrition they need. What these barriers are, how SNAP participants actually feel about the program, and how organizations like Well Fed that specialize in healthy food access are necessary while the system changes, will be answered in this blog.

Arkansas uses one of the strictest allowable asset limits for SNAP eligibility according to a report done by one of our local partners, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. They teamed up with local medical research organizations such as the Office of Community Health and Research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to interview SNAP participants and representatives from SNAP-focused organizations across Arkansas.

Their motive was to gather first-hand testimonies from actual SNAP stakeholders to learn the barriers to success in the program and come up with tangible strategies based on these stakeholders’ opinions and stories.

Mael BALLAND / Unsplash

Arkansas’ SNAP program provides assistance to over 330,000 individuals and has 2,808 authorized SNAP retailers. And although 330,000 is 11% of all Arkansans, only 66% of eligible residents accessed SNAP in 2018, compared to 82% nationally.

With 34% of eligible Arkansans living in need but not accessing government assistance and food insecurity levels in Arkansas climbing 5.2% since the pandemic started, the AHRA and UAMS set out to discover why.

For the 34% eligible, what are the barriers? As stated above, Arkansas has one of the strictest allowable asset limits for SNAP eligibility. That means they either can’t save in order to qualify for the program or they use their savings on food. Participants surveyed said this discourages saving among eligible participants.

Some other barriers mentioned by SNAP community stakeholders were the child support enforcement requirements (which research suggests only harms the children who wouldn’t receive the food), difficult application process, and negative stigma against SNAP users.

The amount of food and frequency of when participants receive it was a concern for participants, too. One SNAP stakeholder said:

When you got to stretch [your benefits] you will buy the cheapest thing. It’d be bologna, hot dogs, you know, a lot of processed foods […] because you’re trying to stretch your stamps out for the end of the month.

The current SNAP benefits could be indirectly encouraging unhealthy eating habits and, ultimately, the high percentage of diet-related illnesses in Arkansas. No one is causing it specifically, however, participants feel like the only reasonable method to make their government assistance last is to purchase unhealthy, cheap food.

Interviewees brainstormed ideas to solve it; increasing the amount of allocation and frequency was mentioned, however, passing such legislation would be difficult and without an accompanying education component, their diet is unlikely to change, they concluded.

There are parts of the program that encourage eating healthy. The Double Up Food Bucks program incentivizes participants by matching up to $20 for every dollar spent on FFV (Fresh fruits and vegetables) at participating locations. Participants did express opinions that the program needs to be more widely advertised because not everyone knows it exists.

Many FFV vendors are at farmers markets, which helps the local economic growth, but can be a barrier for participants who can’t go to these markets, feel embarrassed to use EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), or don’t feel like they fit in with the clientele of the market. There are thoughts on expanding eligible locations to supermarkets and even pick-up or delivery to eliminate this barrier.

SNAP is a very important program to help people in need and Well Fed was never meant to replace it, simply compliment it. The AHRA did this study intentionally to improve on a system that needs a refresh. Until legislation can improve SNAP benefit access, distribution, and improve incentives for eating healthy, Well Fed will be in communities in Arkansas where SNAP eligible participants live.

52% of our mobile market participants in low-income communities are not accessing SNAP benefits and 80% of our participants in a post survey said they needed continued assistance to access the healthy food they need.

Oh, snap! Clearly there is still a great need and we will be there for years to come to help supplement their diets with highly nutritious food and compliment the food assistance programs some currently use.

This blog is a synopsis of the whole article that you can find here.

If you or someone you know would like to apply for SNAP Benefits, please go to the Divisions & Shared Services website to learn more.

Cover photo by Pascal Bernardon

What is… Causing The Obesity Epidemic in Low-Income America

Fast, cheap, supersized food has been running through America’s veins since sliced bread was invented. Also driving the heartbeat of America is innovation and making everything bigger and cheaper. The popular Netflix series History 101 explains that culture shifted after World War II from mom cooking 1,095 meals a year to eating out due to higher disposable income, entertainment value, and convenience. Supply chains shifted and convenient food became cheaper with increased production. The US government began subsidizing farmers to grow high energy-dense commodities like corn, soybeans, and wheat to fuel rising demand (1).

One study discovered the American diet now derives close to 40% of daily energy (calories is the way we measure the energy in food) from added sugars and fats.

With such a high ratio it’s no wonder why the U.S has the lowest-cost food supply chain in the world (2). That begs the question, who is impacted by this low-cost, high-energy dense food system the most? Low-income households.

Refer back to the beginning of the first paragraph; it was higher disposable income that allowed for convenient consumption of fast food. Fast-forward to today. Processed, high energy-dense foods are still convenient, but add to convenience, affordability and accessibility. And it’s not just fast food, but grocery store shelves are loaded with calorie heavy products.

Photo by Nathalia Rosa/Unsplash

Now the tables have turned. People with lower disposable income are consuming this low-nutrient food. But do they have a choice or has the low-cost U.S. food supply chain inevitably determined what the low-income households can purchase?

Harvard researchers discovered that the healthiest diets were $1.50 more expensive than the least healthiest diets (3), so the actual cost of a healthy diet, independent of location, is higher. However, there is a general food price gap by location, too. We see that inner-city grocery stores, where many low-income communities are, have 4% higher prices overall than suburban areas due to less competition, less mobility for clients to respond to higher prices, and smaller stores with higher margins and therefore higher costs (4).

Another factor to consider is the role government-subsidized farming plays on the price of food. A subsidy is money that the US government gives to farmers in order that they are protected against changing prices of what their crops sell for and the amount of crops they are able to grow in a season. There are a few crops that are highly subsidized because US farmers are very efficient at producing them: wheat, soybeans, and corn (5).

Photo by Scott Goodwill/Unsplash

Large farms will grow these highly subsidized crops and grow less crops like fruit, vegetables, and other grains. This drives the cost of processed, pre-packaged foods down while increasing the cost of much-needed nutrient rich produce.

So, families with low-incomes, attempting to keep a food budget with a low salary or government assistance, will be primed to purchase energy-dense foods, at higher proportions, containing grains, added sugars, and added fats (6). And when they live in a food desert, the chances that they will find healthy fruits and vegetables decreases substantially because typically only convenience stores occupy retail space in food deserts. Furthermore, price is not the only point to consider; taste, nutritional knowledge, and confidence in cooking healthy meals are motivating when choosing food, too.

Changes in the food system from the top down through Government policy is a complex and arduous process. In the meantime grass-roots and state level action is vital for impacting the statistics now.

Well Fed is strategically set up as a mobile healthy food and nutrition education non-profit for this exact reason. We work with local and state partners to bring fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat, all products that tend to be expensive or inaccessible, directly to low-income communities. We partner with nutritionists to educate them about how to shop smart, cook healthy, and know the nutritional value of their food. Whether or not healthy food prices decrease, the US government starts to subsidize

healthy food, or more inner-city grocery stores open up and the general price of food decreases, Well Fed will be innovating programs and serving underserved, low-income communities in Arkansas.

What is… Covid-19’s Impact On Low-Income Communities

If asked what the trending health issue has been the last two years there’s no doubt the answer would be Covid-19. The economic impact proceeding the lockdowns and the aggregated number of hospitalizations and deaths has affected many Americans on a personal level, not to mention the global impact it has had on the supply chain, health, and travel. There is a portion of the population, however, whose high health risk has put them in greater jeopardy during the Covid-19 pandemic: Low-income communities.

The prevalence of diet-related illnesses in low-income communities has been a leading comorbidity issue, the simultaneous presence of two or more diseases in a patient, among Covid-19 patients. In this article I will give some background concerning diet-related illness in these communities, what are the main factors that lead to diet-related illnesses, how the emergence of Covid-19 has been worse for communities prone to these illnesses, and what solutions can be offered.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only perpetuated health risks associated with diet-related diseases that have been present among low-income households with food insecurity for decades. A study done in the early 2000’s among low-income households in counties across Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi found that food insecure individuals have 2.4 times higher risk of diabetes and hypertension. And since the 70’s, mortality rates connected with cardiovascular disease (CVD) have declined, however, about 659,000 people in the United States still die from heart disease each year—that’s 1 in every 4 deaths [1]. Communities on the south side of Chicago (where the majority of the population represented is low-income African-Americans) made up “more than 50% of Covid-19 cases and nearly 70% of Covid-19 deaths [in Chicago city limits]…” Why were infection and mortality rates in low-income communities so high?

First, the concept known as “social determinants of health” needs to be defined and addressed for us to arrive at an informed conclusion. Boiled down it is the “view that health and illness are not randomly distributed throughout human society neither are the resources to prevent illness and its effects [2].” Where you are born, live, work, your age, and the systems around you that are in place to deal with illness determine health outcomes.

Before the pandemic began, socioeconomic circumstances made it less likely for them to have access to healthy food whether it’s because they live in a food desert (we have written about this before), have a disability, or less income due to unemployment.

 Furthermore, they may have learned poor health behaviors or have a poor social support system which contributes to stress and poor health.

These factors naturally cause or perpetuate food-related illnesses. Now add in the effects of a pandemic like unemployment, increase in cost of healthy food, decreased public transportation, and fear of going to hospitals or clinics (one study found a decline in “food related disease diagnosis during the pandemic without the indication of a fall in prevalence of these conditions [3]”).

The risk is substantial. Early on, researchers began developing studies that showed a substantial increase in risk of 2-to-3 fold for infection and hospitalization among patients with diabetes and CVD.

What can be done? We agree with Michael Thomsen, a professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the University of Arkansas, when he said, “COVID relief should place more focus on food assistance [4].”

We believe food-related disease comorbidity among Covid-19 patients is addressable with proper food access and education, especially among low-income and underserved communities.

Access to proper nutrition is the powerhouse that fuels a healthy immune system, fights diabetes, hypertension, and CVD, and is the best long-term solution to keep people from hospitalization. And nutrition and cooking education empowers and equips families to cook and eat healthy.

Since Well Fed’s mission focuses on food access and nutrition education, our goal is that, through providing healthy food and nutrition education, underserved individuals and families will have the good health, energy, and motivation to focus on other important areas of their lives such as acquiring a job or maintaining their mental health. They cannot focus on these fundamental steps in life while they remain at high risk for Covid-19 comorbidity. There is hope for these communities battling Covid-19 and it starts with healthy food, it starts with organizations like ours. Will you join us?

What Is… A Food Desert?

“Food deserts, not to be confused with food desserts”

Everyone loves a tasty dessert. I could name off a few and my mouth would start watering.

For a lot of our mobile-market participants, desserts (and other processed foods) are EASY to find when you live in a food desert. Fruits and vegetables, not so much.

Food deserts are sneaky, you see, because of the many subtle factors that contribute to it. You could  live right next to one and not even know it!

Food deserts are found by looking for the census tracts (subdivisions of ~4,000 people inside of a county) with low income and low access to grocery stores.

A low income census tract is defined when at least 20% of the census tract is under the poverty line, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A low access census tract can be defined by showing that 33% or more residents of a census tract must travel a mile (in urban areas) or ten miles (in rural areas) to reach the nearest grocery store.

According to the USDA, 12.8% of the US population fit the low income/low access criteria.

A food desert exists here in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, surprisingly enough. The residents of two of our downtown mobile-market locations have to travel a mile to get to a grocery store with fresh produce. Many of them are elderly or in wheelchairs and getting to the supermarket is difficult, to say the least.

We have a ongoing series called Q&A Thursday where our executive director, Josh Harris, explains terms related to the food access system. Josh continues our series with some field reporting on the topic of food deserts at two of our downtown mobile-market locations.

Take a look.

What’s Really Happening in… Small Town USA

We met with the mayor of a town not so far from Little Rock and our visit blew my mind and reset my perspective on small town living. Here’s some facts about this tiny dot on the map:

# of Families: 200
Stoplights: None
# of stores with processed foods in town limits: 2
# of stores with fresh, unprocessed food: Zero
# of community buildings owned by the town: Zero
# schools: Zero

The mayor, with a weariness caused by many years of little progress, described to us the dire situation as she gave us a tour. She has many projects that are doomed to never start due to lack of funding.

The water pipes underground are completely rusted and have been unsafe for years. The water tower is an ugly shade of rusted orange.

We were searching for a suitable building fit to hold our food programs. We walked around the plot that had once been the only school 10 years ago. To this day it remains unused and overgrown. Though the mayor would like to purchase the land to put it to use, that project has been pushed way into the future.

We drove to the the small fire station on main street. It was large enough to host a program but its crew consists of three volunteers living outside of town. There were a few churches but all their pastors live outside town, the mayor explained, so they don’t have office hours during the week for us to host a program.

Josh asked her if the town had any community centers as we walked around a small park on the edge of town. The mayor confirmed that there are none and said the kids have nothing to go to after school.

We finally landed on the town’s library (owned by the county, not the town) which has just enough room to do a mobile food market and education.

For many of the residents that will participate in our monthly program, the produce we provide is the only produce to which they have access. The nearest fully-stocked grocery store is 15 miles away, a fair distance for residents with unreliable transportation. And for a family with low-income, produce is expensive and not even on their shopping list.

The nearest fully-stocked grocery store is 15 miles away

Even a food bank is just as far away and, if you have read our article about food banks, you will know that they are a short-term solution to these needy people’s chronic health issues.

The moment I love the most, and the type of help I believe makes the biggest waves, was when Josh suggested the mayor should partner with the Boys and Girls Club to construct a community center in the town. I see two things here:

  1. The mayor seemed to be stuck without a solution.  All she needed was someone’s fresh perspective and see a solution.
  2. You can’t get anything better than a win-win! A local business helping a local community so that they both benefit, that’s neat.

There’s hope for this small town. With some years of external community investment, it’s residents can have a much better situation.

What’s Really Happening in… Food Banks

Chances are you know what a food bank is. Maybe you have volunteered for one. They are free food distribution organizations and their one purpose is to alleviate hunger. And they accomplish their purpose well by giving a lot of food to a large quantity of needy people.

Although food banks do a lot of good to get food to hungry people, there are three gaps

It’s not always nutritious food.

Hunger is alleviated by a food bank to the detriment of a healthy diet.

You might ask, isn’t it better to have a full meal of filling, but unhealthy food than to have no food at all? We would agree, however, food banks can actually do more harm in the long-term than good.

Because a food bank receives large quantities of donated food to distribute and have to store the food for long periods of time, they typically can only receive non-perishable food items. Their shelves are stacked high with canned goods and processed foods but rarely with fruits and vegetables.

In fact, according to a UAMS study published in the journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which surveyed 357 food pantries representing 5 food banks across Arkansas, they found only 18.5% of food pantries had written nutrition guidelines.

Food bank participants receive food that perpetuates their chronic diet-related illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. This amounts to high medical bills; The excess total healthcare cost associated with food insecurity is $1,607 per food insecure adult in Arkansas according to Feeding America.

However, a food bank hand-out makes up a large portion of the diet of 5% of US households because it is the only source that is affordable.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery prices rose 5.4% since October 2020 and meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose with a combined total of 10.5% from Sept 2020 to Sept 2021.

Not everyone has access to food banks

To make the situation even more complex, there is another portion of US households that do not have the physical capability to get to a food bank due to a handicap or unreliable transportation.

Food banks perpetuate food waste and do not promote the dignity of choice

Only 19.3% of food banks in Arkansas offer client choice. That means the majority of food bank participants do not select the food they take home so their bag may be filled with food they may not like or want, increasing food they will end up wasting.

This is where Well Fed is uniquely set up to help.

We have video series called Q&A Thursday where our executive director, Josh Harris, explains terms related to the food access system to help you learn more! To start the series off, Josh explains the “gaps” in our current food access system and how we’re filling them.

Take a look!

What Is… Produce Prescription

This article will take you on a journey to discover what produce prescription is and why it could become the new “drug” doctors prescribe.

  • What is it? It is a program to improve the overall health of a participant through a medically-prescribed diet.
  • Who is eligible? Participants that have documented challenges accessing healthy food and/or they have a diet-related health risk such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. 
  • Who runs the programs? Typically a non-profit partnering with a healthcare organization
  • What is the goal? Produce Prescription Programs are designed to treat food as medicine.

The Process

A program participant will go through an initial eligibility screening. The health professional will identify their food-related health risk. The participant’s diet is repeatedly supplemented with healthy food and nutrition and cooking education and medical data is collected throughout the program and finally evaluated to determine the success of the program.

How do you define success?

When test results show biometric improvement related to their individual health risk that was determined at the beginning of the program.

See the problem?

  • Diagram 1: Inadequate distribution to the Southeast with only 9 out of the 108 programs in the US
  • Diagram 2: Shows a high vulnerability for food-related health risks in Arkansas and no food prescription program present

Our Evaluation

Produce prescription programs are incredibly beneficial medically to individuals in high health risk communities and financially to the local produce growers.  It has been done in different ways with varying barriers and results. Unfortunately, location-based programs or programs that require a participant to redeem a voucher at a market are often inaccessible to a low-income community with limited transportation and child care assistance.

We believe the best program is mobile and connected. Take another look at diagram 2 above. Well Fed has already finalized a partnership with a local healthcare organization to create the FIRST on-site produce prescription program in Arkansas!

It is a sad fact that many rural communities do not have grocery stores with a sufficient produce aisle (Dollar Generals don’t count) and many individuals cannot maintain healthy diets. With a partnership with a local healthcare organization, we hope to empower participants to transform their diets and see measurable positive results!

We will simultaneously create valuable data for our Arkansan medical system to tangibly view the positive impact a produce prescription program has on their patients. Ultimately, we want to see as many produce prescription programs in Arkansas as there are in New England or the Midwest!

Our article is a synopsis of a larger, more detailed study done by the NPPC (National Produce Prescription Collective). Read more here.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

© 2021 – Well Fed. All rights reserved.