Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday: Acronym Soup in the Food Desert

If you drive through the food desert, you'll likely see signs in the window of every gas station, liquor store, and ready-mart advertising that they accept SNAP, WIC or, in Illinois, LINK.  In Michigan, FAP are available from the DHS.  Different states have different systems, but most of them now use an EBT.

Getting a headache?  Now, imagine reading all of that if you're hungry.  All of these programs are federal food-assistance programs for the needy, all under the auspices of (yes, another acronym) the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)  Each state administers SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children,) usually through their DHS (Department of Human Services) many using an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card; while SNAP is the federal name for the program, individual states may call it something else - for instance, both the EBT and the program at large are called Link in Illinois; it may also include the TANF, (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program (also known as welfare.)

SNAP and WIC are two distinctly different programs; SNAP "helps low-income people and families buy the food they need for good health."  However, there are no restrictions on what kinds of food can be bought with SNAP dollars, nor on what kind of store can accept them - with the exception of alcohol, cigarettes, prepared hot ready-to-eat foods; if it's food, you can use your SNAP money to buy it.  Sadly, this means that many areas of the food desert can only use their SNAP dollars in liquor stores, which stock enough non-alcoholic foods to qualify to accept them, but not enough to offer nutrition.  SNAP is available only to individuals and families whose income qualifies, typically a net income at or below poverty level, adjusted for the number of people in the household, is required.

The purpose of WIC, on the other hand, "is to prevent health problems and to improve the health of program participants during critical times of growth and development."  This program is available only to mothers and children of a certain age, but has less restrictive income requirements: up to 185% of the federal poverty level will qualify.  WIC also offers nutritional education, health screenings, and referral services for its participants.  As it is a health program, the list of foods one may purchase through WIC is very restricted, although it differs from state to state.  Generally, WIC families may recieve foods such as milk or formula (although breastfeeding support is offered and breastfeeding is encouraged) cereals, beans, eggs, juice, grains, peanut butter, canned fish and cheese are WIC approved foods - indeed, it is likely that the WIC program is what is making the cooking portion of this blog possible, and it shows the power of a regulatory agency when it comes to bringing foods into low-income areas.

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