The federal government just reestablished a program that feeds 40 million Americans a year, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP. This week, Congress approved the Farm Bill, which allocates 80 percent of its funding toward SNAP and the rest toward other food and agriculture programs. Some policymakers pushed for the updated Farm Bill to decrease SNAP funding and enact stricter work and eligibility requirements that would reduce or eliminate benefits for many participants. Though these changes did not go through, these recent negotiations demonstrate the precariousness of SNAP, a vital social safety net program, and highlight the ongoing issue of food insecurity — a problem some Philadelphia organizations have taken into their own hands.
As of 2016, over 20 percent of citizens in Philadelphia were food insecure, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as lacking sufficient food to support an active, healthy life. Pennsylvania and national rates of food insecurity are comparatively low — 12.5 percent and 12.3 percent respectively in 2016. More than one in five Philadelphians participated in SNAP by the USDA’s biannual count, but the SNAP benefit may not meet household needs. The typical SNAP recipient in Pennsylvania receives $122 a month, but the USDA reports that the monthly cost of food for a single person over age 5 exceeds that even by the agency’s cheapest recommended food guidelines.
To address the disconcerting reality of food insecurity in Philadelphia, a local nonprofit called the Food Trust and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health created the Philly Food Bucks program to make fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible to SNAP participants. For every $5 SNAP participants spend at selected farmers markets, the Food Trust offers $2 in Philly Food Bucks that can be used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The program is a SNAP dollar-matching program that may allow shoppers to buy 40 percent more produce at participating farmers markets. In recent years, the Food Trust expanded its Food Bucks program to five Fresh Grocer supermarket locations, Olivares Food Market in South Philadelphia, and sites in Camden and Western Pennsylvania. The Food Trust reported this spring that SNAP produce purchases at their farmers markets have increased by more than 300 percent.
Expanding SNAP dollar-matching programs like Philly Food Bucks could benefit SNAP participants across the city and increase consumption of healthy food. State agencies, local food producers, private companies, and academic and health-care institutions represent diverse community stakeholders that could advocate for such an initiative. Increasing produce purchases through SNAP dollar-matching programs could also decrease food waste in grocery stores, which in 2015 could have offered 24 pounds of additional meals and food to SNAP participants. Studies of dollar matching programs in other states reported evidence that they meaningfully reduce participants' reports of food insecurity and increase produce purchases and intake. SNAP dollar matching programs offer an accessible method of diminishing chronic hunger and improving food systems, the costs of which could be offset by long-term savings in health-care spending for illnesses like diabetes.
To prevent a rise in an already troubling rate of food insecurity, public and private entities should collaborate with state and local institutions to create food programs that make every dollar count. Food insecurity is increasingly common and for many can follow any unexpected financial hardship. Ensuring that the residents of Philadelphia can meet a need as fundamental as food supports not only our city’s health, but also its commitment to fairness, justice, and community.
Michelle Chung is a graduate student in social work and public health at the University of Pennsylvania.