U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Food Stamp Act of 1964. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
The 1964 Food Stamp Act's impact on the produce industry
Food assistance was not entirely new at the time of the 1964 Food Stamp Act, but 1964 marked an enormous change in the distribution of benefits. Since then, the policy has grown, shrunk, and evolved to reflect current political climate and address many impoverished citizens’ needs.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
Recent controversy surrounding food stamps has been in the face of the 2007 recession, where job requirements were waved across entire states to ensure that the increasing number of unemployed people could still get access to food. As the economy has started to recover, many states are now rejecting the renewal of those waivers even though pockets of the country still face uncertainty.
The original goal of the Food Stamp Act was to “promote the general welfare, that the Nation’s abundance of food should be utilized cooperatively by the States…to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s population and raise levels of nutrition among low-income households.” In this law, it was decided that the income of a household would be considered a “liming factor” in a nutritious diet and therefore allotted power to the states to determine how benefits would be distributed.
Given the long history of food assistance in the US, it is easy to see how agriculture, government policy, and the nutritional wellbeing of the poor have become highly intertwined.
According to the USDA, households may use their SNAP benefits to purchase breads, cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, and dairy products. As of 2002, $5 billion in budget cuts from food stamps led to approximately $1.3 billion in loss in farm and food processing and 7,500 lost jobs.
Furthermore, the sectors hit hardest were livestock, feed crops, fruits, and vegetables, which make up a large portion of what can be purchased using food stamps. A later $18.5 billion cut led to losses in the same sectors in the range of $3.5 billion and 18,500 jobs lost.
Changes in the strength have not only impacted the livelihood of farms and agriculture, but have also begun to sway consumer behavior. As of 2009, the quantity of food sold in stores actually decreased, as many consumers cited that they only bought exactly what they needed. Consumption of fresh produce also increases with increased income, but in the face of the recent economic downturn, a difficult picture has emerged for the fresh produce industry.
Many retailers have seen this as an opportunity to expand and grow their brand. Superstores like Target and Walgreens have opened new grocery businesses within their existing stores in an attempt to access these lower and lower middle-income consumers. But that seems to only be half the battle with access as one piece of the puzzle and interest another.
Although the general trend in the states seems to be towards more health conscious decisions, this may reflect only certain portions of the population and may not include lower income customers. If fresh produce is not a product a consumer grew up with, they may not know how to cook it and may fear that it will rot before they can eat it. Given this, it only makes sense that they purchase cheaper, and potentially less nutritious items even if they are given an opportunity to buy fresh produce. Ultimately, this vicious cycle leads to a less healthy population overall and is damaging to our economy in a variety of ways.
Again, this is a complicated picture for the fresh produce industry: people generally don’t want to waste food or money. It seems like solutions to these issues will have to come from a variety of angles because this issue has so many moving parts.
Some solutions can already be seen in the innovation of Target and Walgreens and in the efforts of the Federal Government to provide food assistance or provide educational resources like MyPlate, but perhaps more connections need to be made within these lower income communities themselves. If people are shown how to use the resource properly and wisely with the benefits they are given, we may get out of this is a more educated and healthful populace, which seems like a pretty admirable goal.
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