This is an editorial written recently by me and Marissa Parisi, Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont that has appeared in the local press. I feel that this is an important topic, and one that can’t be discussed too many times.
A recently-introduced resolution in the Vermont House has many of us in the anti-hunger community concerned about peoples’ understanding of the effectiveness and importance the 3SquaresVT program (nationally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and formerly Food Stamps). 3SquaresVT currently serves over 90,000 of our neighbors – that is more than 1 in 7 Vermont households. Proponents suggest that 3SquaresVT dollars are “all too often” spent on foods with limited nutritional values. This perception is often backed up by anecdotes about how someone was seen buying food that doesn’t seem nutritious with their benefits. The reaction can be visceral, even if the intentions are good. But good public policy is not made based on anecdotes or good intentions; it is made based on facts. There is no research-based evidence that restricting what our neighbors can purchase with government benefits leads to improved health outcomes down the road. Research does show that 3SquaresVT participants make similar food choices to non-participants at all income levels. In fact, public health officials and physicians across the country support increasing participation in 3SquaresVT as an overall obesity-prevention strategy. Moreover, studies by both the USDA and Children’s Health Watch have shown that chronic hunger and food insecurity have much greater impacts on the health of our citizens than poor nutritional choices. Hunger and malnutrition increases the risk of poor health, obesity, academic failure, and developmental delays. 3SquaresVT decreases poor health and hospitalization among participants, especially among young children and elders. The food choices we all make are influenced by many things, but we all are susceptible to constant advertising, often for non-nutritious foods. We are fortunate because Vermont is way out front when it comes to the availability of local food and making healthy eating easier. We believe the Vermont way to encourage healthful food choices for our neighbors receiving 3SquaresVT is to support 3SquaresVT usage at more farmers’ markets and for CSA shares, offering incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases, enhancing nutrition education across the state and the nation, and improving benefit levels so people can afford more healthful foods. These changes would save scarce health care dollars and bring more federal dollars to our state and into the pockets of our farmers and food producers.