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… 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… Food Pantries

Chances are you know what a food bank or pantry 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 number of needy people.

Although they 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 pantry 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, the type of food provided by food pantries can actually do more harm in the long term than good.

Because a food bank receives large quantities of donated food to distribute to food pantries and has 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, found only 18.5% of food pantries had written nutrition guidelines.

Food pantry participants can receive food that perpetuates their chronic diet-related illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Consequentially, this can increase their 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 [pantry] hand-out makes up a large portion of the diet of 5% of US households because it is the only source that is affordable.

More families have turned to food assistance programs for help with rising food costs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery prices rose 5.4% since October 2020, and meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose by 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, another portion of US households do not have the physical capability to get to a free food distribution location due to a handicap or unreliable transportation.

Pantries can perpetuate food waste and often do not promote the dignity of choice

Only 19.3% of food pantries in Arkansas offer client choice. That means the majority of food pantry participants do not select the food they take home so their bag may be filled with food they may not like or want, increasing the 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 Well Fed is on a mission to fill them.

Take a look!