Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on a crusade to make New York a healthier place. Following his prohibition on smoking indoors and at public parks and his barring of restaurants from cooking with trans fats, the Mayor proposed restricting the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamp program, to purchases of non-sugary products. However, USDA officials, who prefer incentive-based approaches to reform, rejected Bloomberg’s proposed ban in 2011. Despite disagreeing with the design of Bloomberg’s proposed measures, many still applauded the Mayor for engaging in a much-needed, alternative discourse on food stamps.

The Politics of Food Stamps

According to former U.S. Representative from Alabama Arthur Davis in an interview with the HPR, “If you are a member of congress, [or] a policymaker, you deal with [the issue of food stamps] in surprisingly narrow terms.” Davis explained that in Congress today, food stamps are typically debated only in the context of whether to increase or decrease funding to the program, and not in terms of reforming the program itself. With budget concerns increasingly stealing the focus of lawmakers, the fiscal implications of the SNAP program have often obscured discussions of the actual success of the program’s policies at meeting the goals of nutrition and poverty alleviation.

Davis recounts that it is difficult to find “any genuine debate in Congress about how we get more organic, healthier food into low-income communities.” In handling the SNAP program in narrow scope, Davis says lawmakers fail to address the issues “in a way that someone who is concerned about these issues in our society would be satisfied with.” As such, it seems that in order to reform SNAP, and ensure that it adequately provides nutrition to low-income Americans, the debate about SNAP must first shift away from fiscal concerns and instead focus more intently on the program’s outcomes.

SNAP Program History

The first food stamp program began in 1939 as part of Depression-era policies designed to aid the poor while simultaneously unloading surplus wheat, bought by the government, as a means to support farmers. The program was revived in the late 1950s due to momentum from Democratic legislatures. After President Kennedy authorized a short-term trail, the Food Stamp Act was finally made permanent in 1964. In 1966, one million Americans were receiving food stamp benefits. Today, more than 45 million Americans make use of the program.

In recent years, the number of people on food stamps has risen steadily, due in part to the economic recession. In 2008, about 28.2 million people used food stamps compared with 40.3 million in 2010. With more people in need of food stamp assistance, evaluating the quality of the program and moving past polarized rhetoric has become increasingly necessary, yet increasingly difficult, given the program’s enormity. However, as Mark Marion, Executive Director of Health Leads Boston described it, this is unfortunate because the food stamp program has become a “political lightening rod” in recent years, which has complicated efforts at its reform.

Bloomberg and the Need for Reform

In recent years, many experts have argued that the ballooning SNAP program, when placed against the background of rising obesity and diabetes rates in the U.S., clearly shows need for reform. According to Tiziana Dearing, Founder and CEO of Boston Rising, in an interview with the HPR, while SNAP allows recipients to spend a smaller percentage of their budgets of food, it does not address access issues. In her view, the program fails to target the systemic issues of food insecurity or prevent recipients from needing to return to the program in the future. Instead, she says, “If you’ve ever fallen into a net, you get tangled” she says, as happens to thousands of SNAP recipients throughout the country.

Though Bloomberg’s proposal was met with strong votes of support and sharp criticism, Dr. Ludwig, childhood obesity expert and Director of New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital Boston, noted in an interview with the HPR that a major reason SNAP reforms were dropped had to deal with “the perceived difficulty of identifying [sugar-sweetened] products [and the] the logistical difficulties of enacting that regulation” and not with conflicting evidence as to whether or not it would be effective. Indeed, when considering the magnitude of the health consequences for SNAP recipients, Dr. Ludwig asserts that Bloomberg’s plan was an innovation first step towards addressing the SNAP program’s often-unfavorable health outcomes.

However, Dearing disagrees, and insists that such a ban would put an enormous burden on recipient families, particularly the large percentage of SNAP recipients who live in “food desert” areas where access to the foods not prohibited from purchase by the SNAP program (under the proposed reforms) is very limited. Instead, she says, access to food, particularly in these low-income areas lacking proper grocery stores, is key to solving the problem.

Still, Ludwig believes that more should be done now to limit purchases of what health experts already know are such unhealthy products. Furthermore, he says, while the cost and convenience barriers to healthy food access remain issues, some institutional factors may be to blame for the inability of SNAP to provide nutritional assistance, including the USDA, which represents many actors whose interests conflict in such reform.

Bloomberg’s Proposal: A Success Story after All?

Mayor Bloomberg may not have received federal approval for a pilot restriction on the use of SNAP benefits for sugar sweetened drinks, but he certainly opened the floodgates for a discourse on Food Stamps that goes beyond fiscal considerations and usual polarizing political rhetoric. He helped sharpen the SNAP program’s focus on providing nutritional food security in a fiscally responsible manner and on preventing problems before they start.

Photo Credit: Reuters

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