No state has yet found a way to define “junk food” and effectively limit SNAP recipients from using their benefits for its purchase. Many farms and farmers’ markets in Maine accept SNAP benefits, and in those venues, the benefits are primarily used for healthy, local food options. However, there would be gray areas even in farmers’ markets. Most people would define cookies and ice cream as “junk food,” but what about granola or cinnamon-raisin bread? Should an elderly shopper not be allowed to purchase a jar of jam? Pickles may have as much added salt as potato chips – would they be disallowed? How will the definitions be established and regulated? It would be extremely complicated, and research has shown that all that effort would not actually change shoppers’ eating habits.
On the other hand, the USDA has found a proven way to improve Americans’ eating habits, and that is via nutrition incentives for SNAP recipients. In Maine, this initiative goes by the name Maine Harvest Bucks. The program provides bonus fruits and vegetables for people shopping with SNAP benefits. When shoppers use their EBT cards at farmers’ markets, they have the opportunity to choose the freshest local foods, purchased directly from the farmers. Under this new program, for every dollar a SNAP shopper spends on any SNAP eligible food, they will receive Maine Harvest Bucks to use for bonus fruits and vegetables. The program not only helps shoppers stretch their limited food dollars (just $4 per day per person from SNAP!), but is a proven way to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they take home from the market.
There are other benefits to farmers’ market nutrition incentives. Farmers are always pleased to share cooking tips and recipes, and to recommend new produce and food preparation techniques. In the midst of the friendly, personal exchanges that characterize farmers’ market transactions, it is much more likely shoppers will learn more about their food choices, and come away excited about the possibilities of what they might prepare. The relationships formed in these exchanges often last after the SNAP benefits end, which is yet another step in the direction of food security for families struggling with issues such as underemployment, disability, or the pressure of caring for elderly family members.
It is also important to note that when SNAP recipients shop at farms and farmers’ markets, those federal dollars circulate multiple times in the local economy. The USDA’s efforts to encourage shoppers to spend more SNAP dollars with farmers to purchase fresh produce is a win-win initiative, getting more food to consumers and creating jobs in rural economies. (See this Food Research and Action Center article for more on the overall impact of the SNAP program in Maine.)
The USDA is a data-driven organization, and the data show that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a profoundly successful program, with a proven track record dating back many decades. The fraud rate is remarkably low, and the successes of the program are astonishing. (For example, children in low-income families that receive SNAP benefits are 18% more likely to graduate from high school!) While there is near universal consensus that all Americans need to reduce their consumption of processed foods, no one has yet found a way to make that happen for SNAP recipients by trying to strictly define “junk food” and “healthy food”. The USDA has found success in using an alternative approach, that of incentivizing healthy choices for SNAP shoppers who take the time to shop locally. It’s hard to imagine a more winning approach for Maine than one that enables our neediest residents to purchase the freshest, healthiest produce from small farmers. This is a new initiative, and we hope that as more residents and leaders become aware of it, more will welcome the carrot versus the stick approach.