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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010, 12:05 pm

Record Number of Americans Now on Food Stamps

BY Akito Yoshikane

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Brittney Nance fills out an application for food stamps at the Department of Employment and Social Services in Sacramento, Calif., in March 2009.   (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The number of Americans living on food stamps has soared amid rising unemployment and a stagnant economy. As of October, roughly 37.9 million people have been receiving aid, including 10 million new entrants into the federal program since the recession officially started in December 2007.

That’s 1 in 8 Americans, and 1 in 4 children, who now depend on electronic benefit transfer cards for food under the program now known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The challenges of balancing a tight budget with a healthy diet highlight the potential health ramifications arising from the economic downturn. Even as some states face difficulty handling the influx of new applicants, debate over dietary regulations continues on whether the assistance can promote healthy eating or only bare-bones sustenance.

While statistics show that enrollment has reached record numbers, many of those eligible are still not receiving food subsidies. A November government report found that one-third of people eligible for food stamps were not receiving them in 2007.

A USDA official  sent a frank letter to states soon after the report was released. According to the Associated press, Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer services chided states for complicating enrollment processes by outsourcing the SNAP program to private, for-profit companies as an "unwise use of State and Federal resources that undermines Program accountability."

While State employees conducted the interviews and made final eligibility decisions under these projects, the division of responsibilities between public and private employees has been problematic and resulted in a more complex and difficult enrollment process that has not served our clients or our taxpayers well. These projects encountered severe problems in meeting critical performance standards and many eligible SNAP applicants have suffered as a result.

In contrast, states like New Mexico or Wisconsin have spent considerable resources helping individuals qualify for food benefits. A secondary benefit is that food stamps directly contribute to the economy. As the USDA found, $1 of food expenditures generates $1.84 in the economy.

Still, the well-intentioned aid program contributes to health problems. A study by Ohio State University’s Center for Human Research found that women who use food stamps may be linked to weight gain. “We can’t prove that the Food Stamp Program causes weight gain, but this study suggests a strong linkage,” said Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study.

But Julie Guthman, an associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, argues that the SNAP system works for providing reasonably nutritious foods at a time when other charities and food banks are depleted with resources. When the times are hardest, the SNAP system shines as an adequate safety net despite the potential for facilitating unhealthy eating, she says:

Those who complain about the use of food stamps to purchase cheap, junkie food ought to set their sights elsewhere. They should consider the myriad policies that allow products laden with high fructose corn syrup, transfats, growth hormones and synthetic processing aids to be sold as food. In my view, the unemployed and poor shouldn’t pay the moral price for our collective failure to curb the excesses of the food industry.

SNAP might not directly contribute to obesity, but it could be that stores that carry healthier foods also tend to be more expensive and inaccessible in low-income communities.

What's more, the cards have regulations and restrictions on what it can purchase. It's surely a deterrent to abuse of the program, but the quality of food is most often proportional to price, making it ever more difficult to continue a healthy diet. Users can either eat poorly, buying cheaper food for a longer period, or eat better with a smaller quantity. That dichotomy surely isn’t healthy, especially for the children, as malnutrition can affect cognitive development.

Furthermore, some say steering the eating habits of food stamp recipients through regulations smacks of paternalism, adding another restrictive burden on those who have already fallen on hard times.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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