Throughout the month of August, I traveled throughout the 1st Congressional District to listen to East Tennesseans. While many of their concerns are in the headlines, such as Syria, health care, immigration reform and government spending, I also heard consistently from folks who were upset at what they viewed as abuse of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program, formerly known as food stamps. Despite the improving economy, many folks are still struggling to make ends meet, and there is real outrage about others spending taxpayer dollars on less-than-necessary food items.
When I got back to Washington, I decided we should translate this outrage into action, so I introduced legislation that would stop the SNAP program from subsidizing the purchase of junk food. My bill, the Healthy Food Choices Act, would use the nutrition standards for another food assistance program for pregnant women and children — the WIC program — to determine what is eligible for SNAP benefit purchase.
As a physician, I realize the importance of healthy eating, and as an obstetrician, I’ve seen how the WIC program helps empower families receiving assistance to use taxpayer dollars to purchase healthy, wholesome foods. If these guidelines are good and healthy enough for women and children, then SNAP recipients should also benefit from adhering to similar standards.
This legislation has two positives for SNAP recipients: It will help to combat obesity, and it will help to combat hunger with nutritious food.
A recent study released by Columbia University found that nearly 1 in 5 deaths among Americans between the ages of 40 and 85 are associated with obesity. In addition to diminishing quality of life, the obesity epidemic is adding an estimated $147 billion to annual medical spending, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2012, a Yale study found that sugar-sweetened beverages accounted for 58 percent of all refreshments purchases by households receiving SNAP benefits. This same study estimates that nationwide, SNAP funds were used to pay at least $1.7 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages purchased in grocery stores. The study also stated that, while soft drinks were purchased by both SNAP and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) recipients, fruit-based beverages were mainly 100 percent juice for WIC-only households and sugary fruit drinks for SNAP households.
We also know that by encouraging nutritional purchasing, we can make a meaningful impact in reducing hunger among the nearly 52,000 households that receive SNAP assistance in the 1st District. A recent story in the Washington Post highlighted this example very well. Specifically, the story mentioned one family that receives SNAP assistance, and describes the children’s dinner as corn chips, Doritos, bread, leftover doughnuts, Airheads, candy and Dr. Pepper. According to the article, after eating the junk food, a 13 year-old girl says she is “still hungry.”
While I think it would be wrong for the government to decide what type of food people can or can’t purchase, it’s entirely reasonable for the government to decide what it will and what it won’t subsidize for purchase. Already, states like Wisconsin and South Carolina have shown interest in similar reforms to improve the healthfulness of choices in their SNAP programs, but have been blocked by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Seeing the need for federal legislation, I hope my bill can serve as a starting point for a discussion on the need for healthy food choices. By giving SNAP recipients more nutritious choices, we can take a meaningful step towards ending hunger in America and combating obesity amongst a vulnerable population.
Participation in SNAP has risen by nearly 70 percent — from 26 million in 2007 to more than 44 million in April of 2011, and the budget has more than doubled to nearly $69 billion in that same time.
That includes well more than 1.2 million Tennesseans who received more than $2 billion in assistance. With participation increasing so rapidly, it’s reasonable for us to try to set some priorities in the program.
There are additional needed reforms. Given our scarce resources, we should work to cut waste, fraud and abuse from the SNAP program to preserve funds and target assistance to families that truly need it. For example, something we hear commonly is that this assistance is necessary because these families are living in poverty. According to the USDA, however, only about 60 percent of families from the 1st District who receive SNAP funds live below poverty level, so that only tells part of the story.
Given some of these issues, I supported the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, which passed the House on Sept. 19. In return for assistance, this legislation would ask able-bodied adults to seek employment, and helps them by empowering states to engage in work and job training.
The bill eliminates the ability of individuals to be deemed “categorically eligible” simply because they qualify for another government program and requires individuals to meet previously established income and asset requirements for public assistance.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, represents Tennessee’s 1st District in Congress.