Experts say many people that are ‘food insecure’ work low-paid jobs, yet still don’t qualify as SNAP recipients
By: Jeanette Settembre
Published: May 2, 2019 4:53 p.m. ET
Millions of Americans don’t have enough money to buy healthy food –– and kids are most at risk.
A staggering 97% of counties in the U.S. are home to people who can’t afford or don’t have access to healthy food, according to a study released Wednesday by Feeding America, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that has a network of more than 200 food banks nationwide.
Out of America’s 3,142 counties, the rates of food insecurity range from 3% in Steele County, N.D., to as much as 36% in Jefferson County, Miss., the report found. And children are suffering the most: One in six kids (or 12.5 million children) are considered to be food insecure, and an estimated 750,000 live in New York City and Los Angeles.
These families are more likely to live in disadvantaged urban areas and also southern U.S. states –– areas with “food deserts” that don’t have easy access to healthy food. Experts say many families that are “food insecure” often work low-paid jobs to pay for rent and utilities, and other expenses like school supplies for their children. They may have little left over for healthy food, but may not always qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps.
Approximately 12.5 million children in the U.S. are considered ‘food insecure,’ and an estimated 750,000 of them live in New York City and Los Angeles.
Mississippi is the state with the highest rate of food insecurity (19.2%) or the state with the least access to food; followed by Arkansas with 17.3%; Louisiana with 16.5%; Alabama with 16.3%; Oklahoma with 15.8%; New Mexico with 15.5%; Texas with 14.9%; and Georgia with 14.4%.
The national cost on average of a meal was $3.02 in 2017, down from $3.06 in 2016, according to the study. That said, 43% of counties in the U.S. have meal costs that are higher than the national average, with some costing nearly double. The average cost of a meal on the West Coast is $3.27 and $3.32 in the Northeast.
The South is where 87% of people live in food deserts. These are areas that typically have low-income residents and where many of those who are food insecure live, according to the most recent study. Without access to healthy food, people tend to eat cheaper, less nutritious meals that can negatively impact health leading to illnesses like diabetes, the authors explained.
Of those people living in counties where healthy food is scarce, 29% are not eligible for most federal nutrition assistance programs. To be eligible for SNAP benefits, a household’s gross monthly income must be at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. So for a three person family, that would be $2,213 a month, or around $26,600 a year.
Without access to healthy food, people tend to eat cheaper, less nutritious meals that can negatively impact health leading to illnesses like diabetes.
SNAP benefits can buy any food product aside from beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, tobacco or any nonfood items like vitamins and medicines, which are exempt. The benefits are strictly for food meant to be eaten or prepared at home –– so items that are prepared in store and hot foods aren’t included, though items like fresh fruit, and snacks like pretzels and ice cream are covered at some convenient stores.
The number of authorized SNAP retailers increased by 4% between 2013 and 2017, and more than 80% of SNAP benefits are spent at big-box stores and supermarkets, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
For the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave retailers the green-light to allow people to use SNAP benefits to shop for food online. SNAP participants can spend their benefits at any retailer that accepts electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards.
Last month, the USDA announced a two-year pilot program, now live in New York state, at grocery retailers Walmart, Amazon and ShopRite. The pilot program will eventually expand into other parts of New York along with Iowa, Alabama, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.
People who receive SNAP will be able to order groceries from Walmart WMT, -0.68% online to get in-store pick up or delivery. And AmazonFresh AMZN, -1.62% and Prime Pantry is not charging a membership fee for SNAP recipients, the company said in a blog post. To access the portal, users can create an Amazon account or sign in and type in their SNAP EBT card number. Only New York cards are accepted at this time.
In counties where healthy food is scarce, 29% are not eligible for most federal nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
However, some worker advocates have criticized Walmart and Amazon’s move to cater to more SNAP recipients. The new access to online shopping will allow these companies to tap into the SNAP market profiting off of lower-income families, many of whom work at their stores.
For SNAP parents who are stuck in low-paid jobs and their children, that’s something of a Catch 22.
Walmart is the No. 1 employer of SNAP recipients in Arizona, Kansas, Ohio, Washington and Pennsylvania, and thousands of low-wage Amazon employees are on food stamps, according to an April 2018 report from Newfoodeconomy.org. Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all U.S. employees in November 2018 after criticism over low pay and poor working conditions.
Amazon disputes those findings. “We encourage anyone to compare our median pay and benefits to other retailers,” Lori Torgerson, a spokeswoman for Amazon told MarketWatch in an email. “Amazon increased our starting minimum wage for all full-time associates to $15 per hour.”
“This compensation is in addition to our benefits package that includes comprehensive health, vision and dental insurance, retirement, generous parental leave and training for in-demand jobs through our Career Choice program,” she added.
Amazon could not confirm whether there are fewer Amazon employees receiving SNAP benefits since it upped its minimum wage last year.
The new access to online shopping will allow Amazon and Walmart to tap into more low-income families that use SNAP, many of whom work at their stores.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, pays entry-level workers $11 an hour. When asked for comment regarding criticism about providing a new online service for SNAP recipients instead of paying low wage workers more, a spokeswoman for Walmart said: “We think services like grocery pick-up should be available to everyone, regardless of income or individual circumstances. It’s pretty shocking to hear that someone would disagree with that.”
Catering to SNAP participants is not a new strategy: Major retailers like Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco COST, -0.96% and brands like Kroger KR, -0.82% Kmart and Albertson’s have allowed SNAP recipients to buy goods with their EBT cards for years.
“This move was an inevitable extension of the SNAP market,” Michele Simon, a public health attorney and author of “Food Stamps: Follow the Money,” told MarketWatch. “There’s a lot of money here. If retailers can encourage more SNAP spending they’re going to look for ways to do that.”
But since Congress does not require data collection on SNAP product purchases, it’s unclear what kinds of foods are being bought and exactly how much retailers are making off the $63 million SNAP market.
Trying to get government data on the nation’s food assistance program has been an eight year quest for South Dakota’s Argus Leader, leading to an ongoing Supreme Court case hearing with supermarket trade association arguing against the release of information.
“We don’t even know how these taxpayer dollars are being spent,” Simon said. “Is this really the best thing for public health? Or is it making it easier for people to buy soda, chips and junk and food?”