August Journal Club Review: Policies to correct food insecurity

August’s journal club was led by Laura Borth (Graduate Student in Nutrition). Journal club review was written by Amanda Hurley (Postdoc in Plant Pathology).

Whether it’s the future of our global food production sustaining earth’s growing population, or the hunger our community members are feeling today, food security is a concern. CaSP members gathered last month to discuss the  role government plays in feeding its citizens, and which specific initiatives are pursued in Wisconsin to address hunger. In a previous journal club, we learned that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, have been intimately associated with the Farm Bill since the 1970s – a poetic legislation that bound support for rural farming together with food security. In fact, food assistance accounts for 70-80% of Farm Bill spending since 2008. However, the efficacy of the food assistance programs is constantly debated, mostly because of values, revealing the tenuous foundation for the current level of funding. Indeed, a change to the rules restricting access to SNAP benefits is scheduled to occur this month, which will attempt to, in the words of the current administration, “move [people] away from SNAP dependency.”

The classic argument against food assistance programs in a capitalist society is the fear of freeloaders. Even in the simplest of societies, communities of bacteria, “cheaters” can arise who benefit from a public good without contributing. Furthermore, some may also feel that if the government is providing money for food, the government should regulate the purchase of only “healthy” food. Truthfully, I can see the value in asking these questions. As a taxpayer, I would prefer the money go to those who need it and use it to better their health and position. But as a scientist, I want to form an opinion based on fact and not fear.  

The fear motivating the recent proposed legislation change to SNAP benefits derives from a story about Rob Undersander, a millionaire in Minnesota who, even though he had many assets, his low income enabled him to sign up for and receive $6,000 in SNAP benefits over 19 months. While he donated the equivalent to charity, his purpose was to sound the alarm about “cheaters” and urge lawmakers to tighten eligibility requirements to dissuade and restrict people from using the benefits. The fact is that the annual error rate of SNAP benefit distribution hovers around 6% (sum of both under- and over-payment) while fraud accounts for less than 1%. According to new census data, SNAP benefits are the most effective government program for lifting families out of poverty (4.7 million people in 2014).

Wisconsin is a major user of SNAP – 12% of the state’s population benefit from the federal program, the overwhelming majority of which (67%) have children. SNAP kept 125,000 Wisconsinites out of poverty per year in the wake of the financial crisis (2009-2012). What if access to this crucial resource was jeopardized? In response to Rob Undersander, the current administration has proposed a rule change to prevent people from “cheating the system.” Currently, a person can automatically (also known as “categorically”) be eligible for SNAP if they receive other federal assistance and meet poverty standards, which is largely determined at the state-level. The rule will remove state control and harden poverty eligibility, effectively punishing low wage workers for seeking out and obtaining better-paying jobs. The rule will also include assets in the income calculations, which harms senior citizens and families that require emergency food assistance. Fortunately, we can do something about it. The rule is currently open to comments until September 23, 2019. Your comments may protect 3 million Americans’ access to food with a few sentences of fact-based opinion. 

Food assistance in Wisconsin besides SNAP

SNAP isn’t the only food assistance program in Wisconsin. Another federal program feeding Wisconsin children is “WIC” (Women, Infants, and Children), which provides nutrition assistance to nutritionally at-risk populations of mothers and infants and children from low-income families. However, only 60% of eligible Wisconsinites are enrolled in WIC. To fill the gap, charitable organizations such as Feeding Wisconsin coordinate the activity of food banks. Feeding Wisconsin serves almost 600,000 Wisconsinites while simultaneously collecting crucial data on impacts of food insecurity and where improvement is needed. For example, 82% of clients cope with food insecurity by purchasing unhealthy, but inexpensive food, while 70% have to decide whether to eat or pay utilities. Importantly, 10% of Feeding Wisconsin clients are above the poverty eligibility line for SNAP benefits but still clearly struggle with accessing nutritious food. Food insecurity is also rampant on university campuses. If you are a student struggling to obtain nutritious meals, especially over holiday breaks, you are not alone. UW-Madison has several resources to address food insecurity and is experimenting with the food delivery to students process (i.e. online ordering for food banks!). While hunger is sometimes referred to as an “invisible” problem, CaSP hopes the recent irrefutable data brings the extent of chronic food insecurity into sharp focus for college campuses and legislators nationwide.