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USDA- ERS Amber Waves Nutriton Articles: Local Food Purchases; Potential SNAP Restrictions

On Monday, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) updated its monthly Amber Waves publication; the March edition contained two particularly interesting articles on nutrition related policy.

The first, which took a closer look at local food purchases made by school districts (“Many U.S. School Districts Serve Local Foods”), indicated that, “The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established the USDA Farm to School Program to encourage school districts to use locally produced food for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)—the agency responsible for administering school meal programs—partnered with ERS to conduct USDA’s Farm to School Census, the first attempt to ask every public school district in the United States about their involvement in farm to school activities and how much locally produced food they served in school meals. Schools reported how they defined ‘local foods,’ with two common definitions being foods produced within 50 miles or within the State. According to the census, 36 percent of U.S. school districts reported serving locally produced food in school meal programs during the 2011-12 or 2012-13 school years and an additional 9 percent planned to serve local foods in the future.”

The article added that, “The top food categories sourced locally were fruits and vegetables, cited by 94 and 91 percent, respectively, of the school districts that served local foods. Milk (45 percent), baked goods (27 percent), and other types of dairy products (22 percent) were also among the top food categories sourced locally. For districts that were able to provide food service expenditure data, local foods represented an average of 13 percent of reported expenditures on food.”

A separate Amber Waves item from Monday, which addressed the purchase of unhealthy items through the SNAP program (“Restricting Sugar-Sweetened Beverages From SNAP Purchases Not Likely To Lower Consumption”) stated that, “Americans now get an average of nearly 21 percent of their daily calories from beverages, up from 12 percent in 1965. Since calories from beverages may be less satiating than calories from food, consumers may not recognize how many calories they are consuming from beverages, potentially leading to higher total caloric intake. While some beverages—such as milk and 100-percent fruit and vegetable juices—provide important nutrients such as calcium and vitamin C, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) provide few (if any) essential nutrients. As a result, some argue that SSBs have had a super-sized role in contributing to obesity in the United States.”

The article noted that, “Some policymakers and nutrition advocates have suggested that changes to SNAP, such as excluding SSBs from the set of allowable items that can be purchased using benefits, could directly address overconsumption of SSBs among low-income populations who receive program benefits…Underlying the argument to limit SNAP participants’ SSB purchases is the idea that SNAP participants consume more SSBs than nonparticipants, and that the SNAP benefit covers all of a household’s food spending so that any restrictions on purchases will have a direct effect on consumption in SNAP households.”

The ERS article included this graph:

However, the ERS update pointed out that, “Simply comparing average beverage intake across different SNAP participant and nonparticipant groups does not address the question of whether SNAP influences purchases and if restrictions on SNAP purchases will have any impact on individual intakes. Differences in the characteristics among the three lower income groups may explain differences in SSB and other beverage consumption…After accounting for these observable characteristics, SNAP participants are no more likely to consume SSBs than lower income nonparticipants. These findings are consistent with other ERS research on overall diet quality, which also found that SNAP participants’ diets do not differ greatly relative to otherwise similar nonparticipants. Along these lines, researchers in this analysis found no differences in alcohol consumption between SNAP and nonparticipating adults, even though alcoholic beverages cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits.”

The Amber Waves article also noted that, “On average, SNAP households received $257 from SNAP yet spent $490 on food each month. Over 85 percent of SNAP participants spent more than their monthly SNAP benefit level on food, purchasing an average of an additional $301 worth of groceries with their own money.”

With respect to implications of potential SNAP beverage restrictions, ERS explained that, “While SNAP participants could use their own resources to purchase SSBs, a restriction on SNAP purchases of SSBs would mean a slightly higher price of such beverages for participants in States that tax grocery store food purchases, since SNAP participants do not pay sales tax on SNAP purchases. Excluding SSBs from the allowable foods and beverages may mean SNAP participants who purchase them would have to pay the tax (State policies on how to tax mixed purchases—e.g., purchases using both SNAP and cash income—vary), effectively increasing the price of SSBs for SNAP participants and potentially lowering the quantity purchased. A previous ERS study estimated that a 20-percent tax-induced price increase on sweetened beverages would decrease total daily beverage intake a small amount—37 calories—for the average adult because SSBs make up a very small portion of household food budgets and consumers can substitute to nontaxed food or beverages that may contain added sugars and calories.”