• Updated Website Address: LocalBanquet.org
  • Looking Back on a Decade of Maple Innovation
  • Listening to Farmers’ Voices in the Ecosystem Services Discussion
  • Updated Website Address: LocalBanquet.org

    We've changed our website. Please update your bookmarks to LocalBanquet.org LocalBanquet.org is where you will now find the latest Local Banquet stories, a new Story of the Day update feature, features from the archives, and information on how to contribute to Local Banquet if you're interested in writing about Vermont agriculture. 

    Read more

  • Looking Back on a Decade of Maple Innovation

    Back in 2007, Local Baquet ran an article by Bonnie Hudspeth on maple innovation and production in Vermont. Since then, maple production in Vermont has tripled to 1.8 million gallons a year and innovation seems to have entered a new golden (or perhaps amber) age. We did a quick maple innovation news round up for 2018 / 2019 to help everyone keep up with the some of the trends. 

    Read more

  • Listening to Farmers’ Voices in the Ecosystem Services Discussion

    In 2015, the USDA funded a project for UVM researchers to engage in discussions with Vermont farmers about the idea of being paid for ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are things farmers do that improve the environment for everyone, a common example is grass-based farms capturing carbon in the soil as a way to combat climate change. Some services happen naturally through sustainable farming, others take more of an incentive to implement, and either way some policy makers believe that farmers shoudl be compensated for their contribution. 

    Read more

0
Shares

News & Commentary: SNAP Data in Court

News & Commentary: SNAP Data in Court

Written on

May 09 , 2019

Last week, Civil Eats ran an extended article on a battle that’s gone to the Supreme Court over access to retailers’ SNAP benefits data.  

 

The article points out the many possible implications of this data release. Most of the legal considerations revolve around how vulnerable businesses’ information is to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests by the news media. However, it also plays into the conversation around whether (or, how) to use SNAP to shape Americans’ diets.

 

Nationally, 13% of the population participates in SNAP (12% in Vermont). SNAP benefits vary by income level, however they are designed to be able to provide the majority of a household’s food budget if needed (see this analysis for details). That means they can have a significant influence on the diets of lower income households, which in turn face a higher rate of diet-related disease. . . in a time when half of American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases related to poor diet and low physical activity.

 

The question, then, is whether SNAP-based spending is going towards foods that exacerbate this problem (it is . . . most Americans spend money on unhealthy food, SNAP recipients aren’t more virtuous than everyone else) and whether the government should do something about that. It’s a tricky business whenever we get on the track of suggesting what people ought to eat, much less forcing their hand towards or away from certain items. The conventional wisdom has been to err on the side of the carrot - literally and figuratively. Even if you don’t care about “big government”, many people have empathy for the idea that it’s already stressful to have trouble accessing enough food to eat and adding a dose of bureaucratic paternalism to what food we’ll subsidize is perhaps a step too far.

 

The Civil Eats article suggests that our promotions-based approach is not making headway on the problem, particularly in the areas where we try to combine the dual virtues of healthy food and local food. They point to low participation rates and low total redemptions at farmers’ markets (in Vermont, in 2017 $112,000 in SNAP tokens went to farmers’ markets, total gross sales that year were $6.8 million). What would gain traction? Well, researchers would say that the way to find that out is to gather more data. . . data that is currently being withheld.  

 

The debate isn’t waiting on numbers because the news this past week also included a bill in Texas designed to ban SNAP use on junk food and sugary drinks, as covered May 1st in this article from the Washington Post. Texas is not the first state to go down this road; California, Illinois, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont have all attempted to some degree in the last several years.

 

Even if you get past philosophical philosophical disagreements around restricting SNAP usage, two practical roadblocks are the facts that 1.) It’s a federal program and the feds have a say too and; 2.) How do you define ‘junk food’ anyway? Even if we were 100% certain in our nutritional science (which we’re not) and even if there were a clear dividing line between ‘not a great idea’ food and true ‘junk’ food, there are still practical implementation problems. SNAP already requires a fairly involved enrollment process, that the federal government itself recognizes as a barrier to participation. If, on top of it all, it takes hours of study to understand what can be purchased . . . do you remember the last time you were stuck behind someone at the supermarket checkout debating what a sale coupon could be used for? Or the last time you were the one holding up the line? No one’s patience will survive. Seriously, it would destroy the program.

 

One place that may offer a starting point is sugary drinks. In 2016, the USDA reported that sugary drinks account for about 10% of SNAP food dollars spent. Restricting those sales feels a little more fair, if for no other reason that that we’re looking for policy-based ways to accomplish those restrictions for everyone not just SNAP recipients. Policy work has been done around drinks served in schools, listed on kids’ menus, subject to soda taxes, and restricted by soda sizes. And the nutrition science isn't very gray here, these drinks define “empty” calories - calories without nutrients and that don’t contribute to satiety.

 

Which brings us back around to the FOIA court case. Because if we have a test case for SNAP restrictions in the service of greater health that is fair in the sense that it’s part of a public reckoning on diet that goes beyond a poverty line divide, clearly a case of “junk” food, and easily defined as a purchase category, and we still can’t get traction - then we’ll be left with the question of what corporate interests might be fueling the opposition (okay, plenty of people jump to that question first, nonetheless). .  .and the natural follow up will be to trace the money, data which is the subject of this Supreme Court case. Expect to hear more about this in the future. 

 

 

Posted in

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.

What we do

Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.