The SNAP Program Can Do Better: Options for the 2012 Farm Bill

In November, more than one in seven Americans – 46 million people – bought their food with SNAP dollars through the federal nutrition program formerly known as food stamps.

In this economic recession, discussions that concentrate on the human pain represented by high SNAP caseloads are wholly appropriate. But high SNAP participation also represents billions of dollars of food purchases every year. These dollars could do more than just meet immediate needs. SNAP could be a powerful lever to improve the food system permanently and create jobs and economic opportunity at the same time. The SNAP program can be a powerful tool to push the market to serve our struggling neighbors better, and the 2012 Farm Bill will be a prime opportunity to make that happen.

Caution: Farm Bill

SNAP sales of $72 billion accounted for 12 percent of the nation’s grocery sales in fiscal year 2011 (October 1, 2010 – September 30, 2011). Congress appropriated $80 billion for the program this year, fully expecting it to grow. Targeting these food dollars to programs that link farmers with consumers makes sense both for individual health and community economic growth.

The average monthly SNAP benefit amount per person is $134, and whether or not that is enough money to feed a person well is beside the point for the many Americans who live in communities without access to nutritious food. We see one consequence of this food retail system failure in the catastrophic rates of diet-related conditions among low-income Americans. In Michigan, almost 31 percent of the population is obese, and inadequate access to fresh, affordable, nutritious produce is one reason.

Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program (DUFB) matches every SNAP dollar spent in participating farmers’ markets with an additional dollar for the purchase of Michigan-grown fresh fruits and vegetables. In only its third year, DUFB stimulated more than $1.3 million in SNAP and DUFB sales in the 54 participating markets in 2011. Furthermore, about half of all SNAP recipients are children under the age of 18. If they are introduced to fresh, local food they will develop positive eating habits that will serve them – and the country – for a lifetime.

Bridge Card

Providing all farmers’ markets with wireless electronic benefit transfer (EBT) machines so they could serve SNAP customers would not only be a quick, easy and inexpensive improvement but would also address both the food access challenge for consumers and the need for farmers to find new direct markets. Only 33 percent of Michigan farmers’ markets now accept SNAP dollars via EBT. This limits their growth, prevents them from serving a significant portion of the state’s population (about 20%), and precludes their participation in DUFB.


Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) has introduced a bill that would provide EBT machines to all farmers’ markets and more than 40 organizations signed onto a letter that was delivered to USDA in November asking that the USDA provide machines free to farmers’ markets. These sales represent a powerful twofer: healthy, nutritious food for some of the most vulnerable Michiganders and increased income for small and mid-sized Michigan farmers and the rural communities where they live.

According to Moody’s Analytics, every $1 in SNAP creates an addition $1.73 in economic activity. The economic multiplier effect is even more powerful when these food dollars stay in the same state. Some critics argue that locally-grown food is a luxury that the poor cannot afford, but data do not bear this out. According to studies done around the country, food at farmers’ markets is competitive with supermarket prices, and markets also create new jobs in local economies.

Linking SNAP families with local farmers meets people’s food and health needs while also stimulating economic growth in our communities.
As Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Senator Stabenow has been a strong friend to Michigan’s specialty crop (fruit and vegetable) industry and very supportive of creative models that allow federal food programs to do double duty as nutrition and farm investment dollars. Fair Food Network’s model programs have been supported by private foundation dollars, as have similar efforts around the country. We believe there is now a strong track record showing these ideas work, and we look forward to seeing them included in the next Farm Bill. We expect that Senator Stabenow will resume Farm Bill hearings in early 2012 and look forward to participating in the discussion.