Nutritious foods still out of reach for many Vermont families

Editor’s note: This op-ed was written by John Sayles, chief executive officer of the Vermont Foodbank in Barre, and Marissi Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont in South Burlington.

A recently introduced resolution in the Vermont House has many of us in the anti-hunger community concerned about people’s understanding of the effectiveness and importance the 3SquaresVT program (nationally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and formerly Food Stamps).

3SquaresVT currently serves over 90,000 of our neighbors – that is more than 1 in 7 Vermont households. Proponents of the resolution suggest that 3SquaresVT dollars are “all too often” spent on foods with limited nutritional values, and therefore purchases made with 3SquaresVT dollars should be further restricted to “nutritious food” to promote improved health and lower health care costs. This perception is often backed up by anecdotes about how someone was seen buying food that doesn’t seem nutritious with their benefits. The reaction can be visceral, even if the intentions are good.

Instead of trying to control behavior, we should all work towards creating a Vermont where everyone has nutrition knowledge and feels empowered to make choices that will benefit their own health and the health of their communities.

But good public policy is not made based on anecdotes or good intentions; it is made based on facts. There is no research-based evidence that restricting what our neighbors can purchase with government benefits leads to improved health outcomes down the road. Research does show that 3SquaresVT participants make similar food choices to non-participants at all income levels. In fact, public health officials and physicians across the country support increasing participation in 3SquaresVT as an overall obesity-prevention strategy.

Moreover, studies by both the USDA and Children’s HealthWatch have shown that chronic hunger and food insecurity have much greater impacts on the health of our citizens than poor nutritional choices. Hunger and malnutrition increases the risk of poor health, obesity, academic failure, and developmental delays. 3SquaresVT decreases poor health and hospitalization among participants, especially among young children and elders.

3SquaresVT benefits were originally designed as a supplement for a household’s food budget, back when the average American family spent a third of their income on food. In today’s reality, Vermonters spend less than a fourth of their income on food; much more goes to housing, heat, and transportation. When these other expenses must be paid, the food budget gets cut.

Families are forced to rely solely on their 3SquaresVT benefits for food, which inevitably run out before the end of the month. Just as grocers report that the first of the month brings a surge in 3SquaresVT benefit use, emergency food pantries and meal sites around the state see spikes in demand during the last two weeks of the month when 3Squares benefits run out. The problem is not what our neighbors are “permitted” to purchase with government benefits, it is that nutritious foods are still out of reach for many.

As behavioral economics explains, the food choices we all make are influenced by many factors, including constant advertising for non-nutritious foods. While advertisements for soda and candy abound, when was the last time you saw a television commercial for cabbage, carrots or kale? Instead of trying to control behavior, we should all work towards creating a Vermont where everyone has nutrition knowledge and feels empowered to make choices that will benefit their own health and the health of their communities.

We are fortunate because Vermont is way out front when it comes to the availability of local food and making healthy eating easier.

We believe the Vermont way to encourage healthful food choices for our neighbors receiving 3SquaresVT is to support 3SquaresVT usage at more farmers’ markets and for CSA shares, offering incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases, enhancing nutrition education across the state and the nation, and improving benefit levels so people can afford more healthful foods.

These strategies would create lasting change, save scarce health care dollars and bring more federal dollars to our state and into the pockets of our farmers and food producers.

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  • Mr. Sayles and Ms. Parisi,

    The work you do in Vermont is wonderful, and an extraordinary benefit to our society as a whole. While most of what you note in your column is great advice, your opposition to the House Resolution seems to go counter to your own stated convictions. All of the recommendations you make regarding education and healthy eating can be implemented while STILL restricting the use of SNAP funds to exclude “food” items that impart little or no nutritional value. In fact, it may be the case that the rush to food-shelves at the end of the month would be reduced if such restrictions were in place.

    While I agree that basing policy decisions on anecdotes and visceral reactions is ill-advised, the fact that public assistance dollars can be used to buy candy, soda, Twinkies and other such “fun” foods, in my opinion, is a flaw in the legislation that should have been addressed during its drafting, even before a single penny had been spent on a product with the word “cheez” on its packaging. Public money designated to help people through hard times should not be spent on junk.

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