USDA Has a Plan to Bring Healthy Foods to Poor Communities

New regulations

In a press release last month, the Department of Agriculture announced its proposal for a new regulation which aims to bring healthy foods to poorer communities. Under the new rules, any grocery store that accepts SNAP, the program sometimes called food stamps, would have to include a certain amount of healthy food choices.

“USDA is committed to expanding access for SNAP participants to the types of foods that are important to a healthy diet,” said Kevin Concannon, Secretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. 

For good reason, this issue has gained prominence in recent years. A 2014 study found that the gap between diet quality of the richest Americans and the poorest has been widening. While the overall quality of the American diet improved, diet quality for the poorest Americans actually worsened.

These statistics are particularly distressing because the quality of American diets remains relatively low by objective measures.

Often, the discussion about healthy diets and poverty focuses on whether we should prevent people from using SNAP to buy unhealthy foods, like soda. While I’m no fan of sugary beverages, this kind of paternalism, directed only at low-income people, strikes many as demeaning and condescending. It is much better if we use programs like SNAP to incentivize healthy habits rather than to shame bad ones. (If we really think buying sugary drinks is so bad, we should consider taxing sugar for everyone.)

The USDA does provide some incentives for healthy purchases, particularly local fruits and vegetables. While these proposals can be popular, it’s not clear how effective they really are at improving diets for people who struggle to eat nutritious foods. Frozen vegetables can offer comparable nutritional value to fresh foods, and these options are often cheaper and longer lasting.

How big a problem is food access?

When the USDA studied food access in 2009, it found that only a small number of people in the United States face limited access to healthy foods for geographic reasons. Those that do live in either racially segregated urban areas or rural areas with limited transportation options.

Other studies support the conclusion that many U.S. communities – particularly people of color and residents of rural areas – experience restricted access to healthy foods. But there’s also a growing body of evidence suggesting that changing this dynamic–say, by introducing a new grocery store into a “food desert”– doesn’t improve health outcomes. And some studies have found that access to nutritious food did not correlate at all with health outcomes.

This research certainly complicates our understanding of how income-based disparities in diet arise. The findings most clearly suggest that increasing food access will not eliminate these disparities. Some have argued that differential access to healthy food only explains about 10 percent of the gap.

But improving the diets of low-income people even this much could be worthwhile. And at a more fundamental level, if food access isn’t addressed, it’s likely that overcoming other obstacles to a healthy diet, including poor education and affordability, won’t be tackled either.

If these regulations do get approved, it will be critical to track their impact. Sometimes well-intended rules can have unforeseen negative consequences. It would be unfortunate, for example, if retailers responded not by increasing their selections of healthy foods, but by refusing to accept food stamps at all.

The USDA will accept public comment on the proposed rule until April 18, 2016.

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman

93 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S5 months ago

thanks

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Jim V
Jim Ven5 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

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Sharon S.
Sharon S1 years ago

I hope it works

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Mona Pietsch
Mona Pietsch1 years ago

Thanks

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R1 years ago

TYFS.

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Shirley Plowman
Shirley Plowman1 years ago

this isn't rocket science ---- DO IT NOW.!

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Carol M.
Carol M1 years ago

You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. The majority of people on food stamps have access to healthy food, as the article states. The food choices they make are not always the healthy ones. How many people NOT on food stamps make the same choices? ...not the USDA's role to mandate food selection.

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Shirley Plowman
Shirley Plowman1 years ago

ITS ABOUT TIME.

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