By Dan Reyes, Policy Coordinator, Coalition to End Hunger
In the past few months, there has been no lack of debate by pundits and politicians alike on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). The massive cuts to the program, which helped 47.5 million Americans to afford food in 2012, are largely responsible for the failure of the latest version of the Farm Bill in the House of Representatives. Opponents of SNAP cited the program as being wasteful, rife with fraud, and ineffective in terms of improving nutrition in food insecure families.
Earlier blogs have addressed the first two claims, and here I will take issue with the last. There was no lack of rhetoric claiming that most SNAP recipients spend their benefits on junk food during the Farm Bill debates. While I would argue that the majority of SNAP recipients utilize their benefits to purchase healthy and affordable food, the fact that many benefits are spent on unhealthy food items is undeniable. But while many attribute this to individual shortcoming, we at the Food Bank of Delaware see a larger, systemic issue at play: access.
The term “food desert” has become popularized as of late, referring to areas in which access to healthy foods—fresh produce in particular—is limited. A food desert, as defined by the USDA, is a census tract in which at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent population reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles). Food deserts are a reality in Delaware, found in Wilmington, New Castle, Newark, Bear, Dover, Seaford, the Georgetown region, Millsboro, Dagsboro, Selbyville, and in smaller pockets throughout the stat. Check out the USDA Food Access Research Atlas to see for yourself:
Poor access is almost inseparably correlated with poverty—many of the families in these communities receive SNAP benefits. So, how can they be expected to make healthy choices when they simply aren’t available to them? When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, have limited transportation options, and kids to feed, the corner store becomes the norm.
Now let’s look at this from a different angle: according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, our state ranks #1 in the country in agricultural production value per farm and per acre, with fruit and vegetable production serving as a cornerstone to the Delawarean economy. 42 percent of the state’s land area is under cultivation, and this is to say nothing of the neighboring breadbaskets of Pennsylvania and Maryland. We are virtually surrounded by produce, yet there are communities who cannot access it. Conversely, small and mid-scale producers of fruits and vegetables are at risk nationwide, due to volatile prices and the pressures of development.
Consider this: for every $1,000,000 in revenue earned by farmers selling into a regional market, 13 jobs are created (USDA ERS). For every five dollars spent in SNAP, nine dollars are generated in the local economy. If we can connect regional producers with low-income, low-access communities in a mutually beneficial way, the potential benefits to the state’s economy and public health status are enormous.
The Food Bank of Delaware’s Community Supported Agriculture Program is Delaware’s first major, and most experimental, step in this direction. The program, funded in part by a $300,000 USDA Community Food Projects grant, is now in the fourth week of its pilot year. You can wait until my next blog to learn more, or show up at the Wilmington Farmers’ Market at Cool Springs Park this Thursday, between 4 and 7:30 PM!