Could a government-run nutrition program be making Americans sick? As a former nurse at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital and as an elected representative of Arkansas’ 73rd District, I make sure nutrition programs are a top priority — particularly when it affects our local community. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) is the largest national nutrition assistance program in the country. Nearly 14 percent of the country’s population relies on SNAP, including almost half a million Arkansas residents.
Unfortunately, for SNAP participants, the program may make participants less healthy. In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture published data, which finds people who rely on SNAP are more likely to die from heart disease, have complications with diabetes, and be obese. These are grim statistics for anyone, but more than one-third of SNAP participants are children. Plus, 86 percent, more than $2.3 trillion, of national health care spending is used to treat patients with at least one chronic health condition. As a former health care professional, I know firsthand that the majority — 70 percent — of chronic disease conditions can be prevented with dietary and lifestyle changes.
This is why earlier this year I introduced a bill to improve SNAP in Arkansas. I want to stop SNAP from paying retailers for unhealthful items like sugary soft drinks. Retailers fought back and stopped my bill, for now. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Arkansas adults are obese. We rank No. 3 in the nation for state obesity rates. This is just one reason why SNAP should not exist as a way for retailers to make money from selling junk food.
For decades now, our dietary choices are responsible for more premature deaths than any other cause. This is why SNAP must be modernized. Our country suffers from a national food crisis. SNAP should help people get what they need to be healthy and stop paying for what makes them sick.
Sometimes access to healthful foods is a problem. In such “food deserts,” the few small stores that do exist–often convenience stores–stock few healthful foods but still receive government assistance in the form of SNAP dollars. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates find 18 million low-income Americans live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or 10 miles away in rural areas. This is why I supported a separate bill in Arkansas’ legislature, which passed, to expand access to farmers markets in Arkansas.
The federal government intended to improve food deserts and recently issued a new law that increases what stores must stock to be eligible to receive SNAP dollars. But, again, after vigorous lobbying by the retailers who profit from selling junk food, this new law does virtually nothing to improve access to healthful foods.
The good news is 93 percent or more of SNAP dollars are spent outside of food deserts. However, right now, the SNAP program boosts supply and demand for foods that make people sick. It’s time to stop using taxpayer money to help retailers stock junk food, regardless of their physical location.
How about instead we modernize food policy to prioritize what people need to be healthy? If we do that, we’ll have a program we are proud of.
Rep. Mary Bentley is an elected legislator in the Arkansas House of Representatives, representing the 73rd District in central Arkansas.
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