Written in collaboration with Hayley Lofink, Ph.D, Vanessa Hoffman, M.P.H, Elena Hoffnagle, Shaya Afshar, Kirstin Krusell and Sejal Patel
Hunger and food insecurity are major public health problems in America that have escalated dramatically in response to the current economic recession. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program, serves as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's largest food assistance program and provides a safety net for the nation's low-income population to meet food and nutrition needs. The program aims to help alleviate hunger and improve nutrition by increasing the resources available to low-income households and individuals to purchase food.
This year, SNAP participation is at its highest level since the program's inception. A record 45.8 million people in the United States (more than 15 percent of the U.S. population) are currently enrolled in SNAP, a 38 percent increase since 2008. Nearly 50 percent of those beneficiaries are children.
Since 1939, when SNAP was established to address food insecurity, there has been a dramatic rise in obesity in the U.S. -- 68 percent of Americans are currently overweight or obese. This is a particular problem for low-income populations. Though SNAP has been helpful in alleviating hunger, the program has made little use of its purchasing power to encourage participants to purchase high-nutrient foods such as fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains that could promote health and prevent obesity. Under current SNAP regulations, there are virtually no restrictions on what foods can be purchased, nor are there incentives to purchase healthy foods.
At the federal level, the legislation with the greatest impact on SNAP and the U.S. food supply is the Farm Bill, which will be reauthorized in 2012. It offers a significant opportunity to align farm and food policy with national public health priorities and to reformulate SNAP as a program that serves not only as an invaluable safety net to low-income households but also as a tool in the fight against the concurrent threats of food insecurity and obesity in this population.
Promising strategies to achieve this goal have been proposed, including incentives for purchasing nutritious food, disincentives for buying certain products, improving the inventory stocked by SNAP-approved retailers, as well as harnessing information technology to enhance nutrition education and program implementation.
Until now, there has not been a single place where interested individuals across multiple sectors could convene to discuss ideas about how to improve nutrition among SNAP beneficiaries. Launched today, the SNAP to Health website will do just that -- provide a centralized forum for this discussion.
This new website, an innovative "virtual town hall" for dialogue about SNAP and nutrition, is part of a project spearheaded by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC), a non-profit, non-partisan policy organization dedicated to generating innovative solutions for the nation's current challenges.
SNAP to Health is an initiative that seeks to put health and nutrition at the forefront of discussions guiding the 2012 reauthorization of SNAP in the Farm Bill by identifying the barriers, best practices and promising innovations for improving nutrition within this federal food assistance program.
As an online forum for discussion and debate, the SNAP to Health website will help to inform a broad range of stakeholders about innovations for the program by engaging a diverse range of perspectives. Furthermore, the website incorporates a section specifically designed for SNAP beneficiaries. There, SNAP users can contribute their idea and can also find healthy eating tips, recipes, strategies for shopping on a budget and nutrition guidelines developed by the USDA. The site also serves as an online hub for health and nutrition information for everyone, including a multitude of resources and interactive tools.
SNAP, an essential food assistance program for 45 million Americans, provides an important mechanism for both alleviating food insecurity in the United States as well as improving health and nutrition for 1 out of 7 people in our nation. Strengthening nutrition in this program is vital to improving health for 18 percent of Americans. During this challenging economic time, America requires cutting-edge solutions to its public health problems more than ever. The goal of this site is to help identify strategies to promote healthy nutrition and foster discussion, collaboration and innovation among those working to improve health, reduce food insecurity and prevent obesity in the United States. Visit SNAP to Health today to add your voice to this important discussion and be sure to check out SNAP to Health on Facebook and Twitter @SNAPtoHealth.
Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the Public Health Editor of the Huffington Post. She is also the Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., a Clinical Professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, and Chair of the Global Health Program at the Meridian International Center.
Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the Federal government in the Administrations of four U.S. Presidents, including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, as a White House Advisor on Health, as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch and as Chair of the Health and Behavior Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the US Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. Named by the New York Times, the National Library of Medicine and the Medical Herald as one of the most influential women in medicine, Dr. Blumenthal is the recipient of the 2009 Health Leader of the Year Award from the Commissioned Officers Association and was named a 2010 Rock Star of Science by GQ magazine and the Geoffrey Beene Foundation.
Hayley Lofink, Ph.D., a recent graduate of Oxford University, serves as a Health Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.
Vanessa Hoffman, M.P.H., a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, serves as a Health Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.
Elena Hoffnagle, a recent graduate of Yale University, is a Health Policy Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.
Shaya Afshar, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, serves as a Health Policy Intern at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.
Kirstin Krusell, a recent graduate of Brown University, serves as a Health Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.
Sejal Patel, a recent graduate of Columbia University, serves as a Health Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.