On a recent internet excursion I found myself researching nutrition education organizations that might be interested in learning about our African Heritage Diet Pyramid.  In the process I happened across SNAP to Health, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.  I became intrigued with the work they have done to redefine the program and how it has evolved over the years – so what else was there to do, but contact them and ask them to do a Q&A.  Thankfully Dr. Blumenthal, SNAP to Health’s Project Director, was kind enough to talk with us so we can tell you about all their great work.

OLDWAYS:  Food assistance has come a long way since the original blue and orange food stamps of 1939. What exactly is The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and how does it work?
DR. BLUMENTHAL:  SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is a federal government program that provides food assistance to low-income individuals and families in the United States. Funds are distributed to eligible households on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, and can be used to purchase food items. Alcohol, tobacco and prepared foods are prohibited. The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits and shares the cost of administering the program with the states. In fiscal year 2011, the federal government spent about $78 billion on SNAP. Approximately 92 percent of these funds provided direct benefits to households for the purchase of food. The other 8 percent was used primarily to finance administrative costs.

OLDWAYS:  How many people does SNAP currently serve? Has the number increased recently?
DR. BLUMENTHAL:  SNAP is one of the largest federal assistance programs in the country, helping more than 45 million Americans afford food in 2011. Almost 75 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children, and more than 25 percent of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. The program has been integral in addressing and preventing food insecurity in the U.S., particularly during the current economic recession. However, according to data from 2009, about a quarter of those who are eligible for SNAP are not enrolled.

OLDWAYS:  You recently launched a new website, SnapToHealth.org. What is the goal of this new site and how do you see it better supporting your work?
DR. BLUMENTHAL:  With over 45 million people participating in SNAP, the program provides a strategic opportunity to improve the health and nutrition of low-income Americans, who are more likely to suffer from obesity and chronic disease. SNAP to Health is a virtual town hall where all members of the community can convene to discuss the current state of nutrition and health in the United States. We provide a public forum for input from individuals, community organizations, local and regional businesses, and foundations about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Our goal is to improve the nutrition and health of Americans on SNAP by hearing from all of you. This project, conducted by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, will make science-based policy recommendations to improve nutrition for participants in the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP to Health is supported by a grant from the Aetna Foundation.

OLDWAYS:  You don’t just hand out money; SNAP also conducts nutrition education programs. How do these programs motivate people toward better eating habits?
DR. BLUMENTHAL:  The goal of SNAP’s nutrition education programs (SNAP-Ed) is to promote healthy eating and lifestyle behaviors to reduce the likelihood of long-term health damage and chronic disease. However, SNAP-Ed programs vary considerably by state, and more research is needed to identify best practices. SNAP-Ed is optional, but states are strongly encouraged to participate—and all 52 states and territories do. Interested states submit an annual SNAP-Ed plan to the USDA that includes a proposal for educational activities and a corresponding budget. Approved plans are reimbursed for half of the required funds. SNAP-Ed programs are administered through Implementing Organizations, including cooperative extensions, community health agencies, universities, and state health departments. In 2010, as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, national funding and guidelines were changed to improve the effectiveness of SNAP-Ed. Visit the USDA’s website to learn more.

How do people qualify for SNAP?
DR. BLUMENTHAL:  Federal guidelines require that a household’s monthly income must be at or below 130% of the poverty line to be eligible for SNAP. However, states have the authority to heighten or ease eligibility requirements. For example, some states allow automatic enrollment when housing or childcare costs exceed a certain proportion of household income.  Other states stipulate that households cannot have assets exceeding $2000 (such as a car), or $3000 in the case of households with elderly or disabled individuals. Because SNAP is administered at the state level, procedures for enrolling vary. Often, an in-person interview is required. However, some states have responded to increasing demand by allowing phone interviews and online applications. Applicants must then submit supporting documents, such as proof of identity, residency, and citizenship status, pay stubs, utility bills, etc. Participants must periodically re-apply for benefits, typically every 6-12 months.

OLDWAYS:  How can those of us with better food security help or support the SNAP program?
DR. BLUMENTHAL:  With 1 in 6 Americans benefiting from a food assistance program, chances are you know someone who is enrolled in SNAP. SNAP is a program that enjoys rare bipartisan support in Congress, due to its demonstrated success in reducing hunger in America. However, you can further support SNAP beneficiaries by working to improve the food environment. You can work with community groups to increase access to fresh produce in food deserts, or teach cooking classes for children and their families. Oldways is doing wonderful work helping people to eat nutritiously in a culturally-relevant and enjoyable way. You can also visit SNAP to Health to contribute your ideas on innovative ways to improve the program. Efforts like these will help improve nutrition for everyone, including SNAP participants!

—Rachel

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