male seller helping female customer at farmers market

Why We Focus on Expanding SNAP Access in Blue Zones Project Communities

 

Long single, Ted is a barber who was forced to retire early due to an unexpected and irreparable vision issue that left him unable to cut hair or take on any new jobs that required the use of his sight. His income plummeted by 80%, and he found himself for the first time in his life without enough money to cover basic necessities. As a lifelong conservative who believed that people should be self-sufficient and not rely on others for a handout, this was a very difficult and humbling experience for him.

Jackie is a long-time stay-at-home mom who homeschooled her six children. She went through a divorce and suddenly had full custody and financial responsibility for all her children, after having been out of the workforce for nearly 20 years. A committed home cook and deeply knowledgeable about nutrition, she was worried about being able to feed her children enough healthy food to nourish their growing bodies and brains while she got on her feet.

José is the primary earner in his family, which includes a wife and three young children. While he works two jobs to try to make ends meet for his family, the cost of basic needs–such as housing, food, and transportation–outpace what he is able to earn. Oftentimes, that means skimping on costlier, healthy items in favor of more affordable, less nutritious options that can help his family make it through the month. 

What do Ted, Jackie, and José have in common? They are all in the ‘SNAP Gap’– people who are eligible for but unenrolled in this federal food program. Formerly called food stamps, SNAP (the United States Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), was designed to ensure all Americans are on a level playing field when it comes to having reliable access to affordable, healthy food–including fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. 

SNAP enrollees receive a specific amount of money each month, depending on family size and other factors, that can be used to purchase groceries using an electronic card that works much like a debit card. People who are eligible for SNAP represent a range of Americans: young children, retired seniors, people with disabilities, people who have faced unexpected job loss or medical issues, and people who live in communities with a high cost of living. In essence, SNAP is a program designed for people who are ‘Asset Limited and Income Constrained,’ which may mean they work full-time or more but are unable to cover the cost of their everyday needs.

There are a variety of reasons why many people fall in the SNAP Gap, despite their eligibility. As someone in his early 60s, Ted has never needed to rely on this type of government benefit program and didn’t realize he was eligible. As a Latino American, José takes pride in providing for his family. To him, using SNAP benefits would contradict his cultural values, community norms, and personal pride and foster a sense of shame. While Jackie struggles to survive on one income and has learned about her eligibility for SNAP from friends in the know, she worries about being judged by members of her small-town community who might see her using her SNAP-EBT card at the local grocery store. Regardless of why people inhabit the SNAP Gap, the results are the same: people eligible for SNAP but not enrolled are less likely to consume the recommended daily servings of healthy foods, which can lead to long-term diet-related health conditions.

The reality is that we can all face unexpected challenges in life. The greatest number of people enrolled in and eligible for SNAP are households with children, seniors, and people with disabilities. Programs like SNAP make it possible for people like Jackie and José, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it, to put healthier food on the table for themselves and their families. This ultimately leads to healthier communities and lower healthcare costs for employers and government. Ensuring that everyone who is eligible is enrolled in SNAP improves peoples’ health and reduces their risk of diet-related diseases. SNAP also offers other community-wide benefits, including reduced healthcare costs, a healthier community, and boosts to the local food economy. SNAP is designed to serve as a systems-level solution to a systems-level challenge. 

While Ted, Jackie, and José’s stories help paint a personal picture of why people may need a food program like SNAP, it’s also important to understand the issue of hunger at a population scale in our society, the size of the SNAP Gap, the connection between SNAP and health, and how increasing SNAP enrollment improves personal and community health, while benefiting a community’s bottom line. 

According to Feeding America, nearly 10.5% of Americans experienced hunger in 2021, including many hardworking people who live well above the poverty line but still cannot afford to meet their basic needs. As most people know, life has gotten increasingly expensive in the last several years, including the cost of healthy food. More and more people are experiencing real challenges with making ends meet. That oftentimes means making difficult decisions, such as choosing less nutritious, cheaper options or eating less to be able to pay for prescriptions.

According to Feeding America, nearly 10.5% of Americans experienced hunger in 2021, including many hardworking people who live well above the poverty line but still cannot afford to meet their basic needs. Click To Tweet

A healthy diet can help lower the risk of many diseases and enable people with chronic diseases to better manage their conditions and reduce complications. However, when people don’t have access to healthy foods because they can’t afford them, or the grocery store with affordable, healthy options is too far away, they are going to turn to less healthy options.

This is why Blue Zones works in communities across the country to make the healthy choice the easy choice for everyone. Increasing SNAP enrollment can improve health outcomes, reduce hunger, and even boost local economies. The Blue Zones Project strategy includes measurable goals for increasing enrollment in SNAP and WIC to help low-income individuals afford healthier food options. This is important because we know there’s a strong correlation between eating fresh fruits and vegetables and living your best and healthiest life. 

The Blue Zones Project strategy includes measurable goals for increasing enrollment in SNAP and WIC to help low-income individuals afford healthier food options. Click To Tweet

In addition to working to boost SNAP and WIC enrollment, the Blue Zones Project Grocery Store Pledge Menu encourages grocery stores seeking Blue Zones Project Approval to accept SNAP and WIC. This is because enrollees in these programs can only fully utilize their benefits if they have access to stores in their communities that are authorized to accept SNAP and WIC as payment.

There are powerful examples of Blue Zones communities working to close the SNAP Gap. In places like Tuolumne County, California, the local Blue Zones Project works with community partners to get eligible people enrolled in SNAP and connect them to farmers’ markets, local farms, and other sources of healthy food. These efforts help consumers and farmers alike. Blue Zones Project Tuolumne County Public Policy Advocate, Kristine Conforti, has seen an increase in CalFresh (California’s SNAP program) enrollment since Blue Zones Project partnered with Adventist Health to implement changes in the community to support improved health outcomes.

Conforti has worked with Tuolumne County Social Services to educate seniors about SNAP and to help them enroll in the program if they are eligible. They signed up eight new participants at the first site they visited in the isolated, rural Groveland community, which was a 45-minute drive from the Social Services office where the seniors would have had to go to enroll on a typical day. “They have transportation barriers and health issues that would keep them from going to the office,” Conforti explained. 

Out in the field, she sees people reluctant to sign up for the program due to stigma. At a health clinic for Native Americans, after speaking to a group about CalFresh, she recalled one man who said, “I’ll talk to my wife, but we’re okay.” 

“It’s pride and it’s generational,” she said.

In Tuolumne, three certified farmers’ markets now accept SNAP; however, Conforti says it requires a lot of hands-on work for it all to run smoothly. Volunteers, including herself on occasion, man a booth at each farmers’ market where CalFresh participants can purchase tokens using their CalFresh benefits. They can then use the tokens to purchase eligible food items from farmers at the market. At the end of the day, volunteers exchange the farmers’ tokens for cash. The only drawback for users is that they must use all the tokens they purchase and cannot get a refund.

Beginning this spring, CalFresh users will also have another way to use their benefits in Tuolumne. Conforti has been working with an organization called Outer Aisle to develop a pilot program that will enable CalFresh participants to purchase monthly produce subscription boxes that are packed with whatever fresh vegetables are in season for $20-25 using CalFresh benefits. These boxes would be available year-round and delivered by Outer Aisle to one or more distribution points in the county.

In addition to fresh vegetables, each subscription box will include a recipe card that gives participants ideas for making meals from the vegetables using staple items from their pantries, such as beans and pasta.

For convenience, CalFresh participants will be able to sign up for the program online, or Blue Zones Project team members will help them sign up if they need assistance.

Conforti said the first distribution site will be at a local senior center, where there will be a kickoff event such as a cooking demonstration. By showing what the box includes, how the food comes packaged with the recipe card, and how the included vegetables can be cooked, the Blue Zones Project team hopes to create even greater interest and further boost CalFresh enrollment. “Outer Aisle also wants to grow their business, so it’s a win-win,” Conforti said.

Other Blue Zones communities have achieved similar impacts. In West Hawaii, there was a 50% increase in the number of farmers markets accepting SNAP/EBT across the focus area county. Blue Zones also facilitated the expansion of the Da Bux double-up bucks program that provides financial incentives for SNAP recipients to buy more Hawaiian-grown produce. With partnerships and grants won by Blue Zones Project, they expanded the program from Hawaii Island to the entire state of Hawaii. And Blue Zones Project Fort Worth introduced Double Up Food Bucks during the pandemic, designed to double a SNAP recipient’s buying power for  fresh fruits and vegetables. By 2022, Double Up Food Bucks had provided families with over $215,000 in savings, and local SNAP users had recorded a total of 32,000 Double Up Food Bucks transactions. 

Finally, maximizing enrollment in SNAP is good for a community’s bottom line. These programs not only help communities to improve the health outcomes of their residents, but they also fuel economic growth by boosting revenues and creating jobs for farmers, grocers, and truckers. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “SNAP reduces food insecurity and brings long-lasting benefits – not just to families, but also to local communities and the entire country.” 

Maximizing enrollment in SNAP is good for a community’s bottom line. These programs not only help communities to improve the health outcomes of their residents, but they also fuel economic growth. Click To Tweet

The USDA Economic Research Service reports that an increase in $1 billion in SNAP expenditures is estimated to increase economic activity by $1.79 billion. Essentially, this means that every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 in economic activity. A $1 billion increase in SNAP spending also creates anywhere from 8,900 to 17,900 full-time jobs, including self-employment. 

As we further our mission to empower everyone, everywhere to live better, longer, existing programs and policies, such as SNAP can be leveraged and expanded so that the healthy choice is easy for everyone, helping us all get one step closer to living to 100.

 


 

Maggi Adamek, PhD, Blue Zones National Food Policy Expert, leads the company in reimagining the ways communities eat, through healthy changes to settings and systems. A highly respected national food systems expert, Maggi has worked at the intersection of food, health, and agriculture to improve public health for nearly three decades. As the developer of nationally prominent food systems success stories ranging from food hubs to statewide food charters, she has been quoted by Michael Pollan in the New York Times and has published books and peer-reviewed and popular articles on many aspects of the US food system. With her relatable and effective facilitation style, scholarly training in adult learning, and deep experience in working across diverse cultural contexts, Maggi fosters positive collaboration for groups seeking big change in their food system.

 

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