Column: Double up on SNAP to help low-income families eat healthy
Nearly half of SNAP participants are children, who need nutritious food to grow, learn and thrive.
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Each month, SNAP benefits put food on the table for approximately 40 million people in the United States, and more than 160,000 people in Hawaii. Nearly half of SNAP participants are children, who need nutritious food to grow, learn and thrive. Research shows that access to nutritious food helps children’s brain development, improves their school performance, has long-term health benefits, and establishes long-term healthy eating habits.
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is essential to families that depend on it, but benefits are modest — the average beneficiary in Hawaii receives about $239 per month, which comes to under $8 per day. In fact, in 99 percent of U.S. counties, the average SNAP benefit does not cover the average cost of a meal. That issue is magnified by Hawaii’s higher food costs.
The Hawaii Legislature has an opportunity during its 2019 session to expand the benefits offered to those most in need of food assistance, and to provide incentive for SNAP benefits recipients to use those benefits to select more fresh produce, versus less healthy food options.
The Agriculture Act of 2014 authorized the USDA to provide Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) grants to eligible organizations to design and implement projects to increase produce purchases among low-income consumers participating in SNAP by providing incentives at point of purchase.
In 2018, the American Heart Association and other health partners successfully advocated for expansion of federal funds for those programs through the farm funding bill. As a result, approximately $250 million federal dollars are allocated over the next five years to support SNAP incentive programs.
Several Hawaii communities are currently receiving FINI grants to implement “double-up” programs and allow for the use of EBT (electronic benefit transfer) payments for SNAP purchases at certain farmers’ markets and commercial retailers. House Bill 262 and Senate Bill 390 would supplement available federal funding with state funding to expand those programs throughout the state, help to insure their sustainability, and potentially draw matching federal funds into our state.
“Double-up” programs offer a win-win for families, local grocers and farmers, and communities. “Double-up” programs match SNAP recipient dollars spent on fresh fruits and vegetables resulting in a financial benefit to local growers and food retailers. Low-income families bring home more healthy food; area farmers gain new customers, make more money, and potentially expand production; and more food dollars stay in the local economy. Food markets, such as KTA stores on the Big Island, participating in the program see increases in fresh produce sales.
These programs have been successful in urban areas like New York City as well as statewide in Massachusetts, Michigan and California, and are now being piloted in communities across the country.
Hawaii currently has only a handful of “double-up” SNAP programs — in Hilo, Kalihi Valley, Waianae and on Molokai, funded through federal funding and private grants. The estimated economic benefit alone to Hawaii if double-up programs were expanded statewide would be $3.6 million (including increased jobs in farming and retail markets, and increased produce sales).
That doesn’t include the long-term health savings to the state and its employers that would be recognized through improved nutrition among Hawaii’s most disparately affected residents.Estimated annual economic benefit of a statewide Double Up.
SNAP plays a crucial role in helping children and families who are struggling to gain access to necessities like healthy and affordable food. Incentive programs like “double-up” make it even more effective; we should do everything we can at the local level to expand those programs in Hawaii.
Kahealani Rivera, M.D., is president of the Hawaii division of the American Heart Association.