There’s been a lot of discussion about plant-based diets and how they can positively impact the chronic health issues that plague Americans today. We know that adopting a plant-forward diet can prevent people from developing diabetes or lead to a reduced need for insulin for those who already have diabetes. People who follow a plant-based diet have significantly reduced mortality from strokes and heart disease, because vegetarians often eat more fiber and fewer salty snacks or sodas than nonvegetarians.
Yet despite all of the nutrition information available, as of 2019, only 12.3% of adults consume the recommended amount of fruit, while just 10% meet their vegetable requirements. These deficiencies are reflected in our health outcomes as a nation: It’s estimated that cardiometabolic disease caused by suboptimal nutrition leads to healthcare costs of 50 billion dollars.
Upon closer analysis, it seems that poor Americans are disproportionately more likely to consume a diet low in fruits and vegetables. Many people who are of lower socioeconomic status, especially Black people and non-Hispanic white people, tend to consume a diet that is high in ultra-processed foods. Marion Nestle defines UPFs as “those constructed from industrially produced ingredients unavailable in home kitchens and formulated to be ‘addictively’ delicious (‘you can’t eat just one’).” A diet high in UPFs is directly linked to health issues such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, both of which are more prevalent among lower-income Americans.
There are good reasons why people who are less resourced choose UPFs over produce, especially those who receive SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps). Low income families with children consume processed foods because they are convenient and have a long shelf life. These foods can be purchased and saved for when food runs out at the end of the month, and they reduce waste because parents know their children will eat them. The long working hours and financial stress placed on poor families also leads to lower diet quality.
Under USDA Thrifty Food Guidelines, on which SNAP benefits are currently based, a family would need to spend more than 16 hours a week on food preparation in order to eat a whole foods diet. Further, corn, wheat, soy and rice — which are made into ultra-processed foods — are subsidized by the USDA, while fruits and vegetables have higher fixed costs and are correspondingly more expensive. It is unsurprising that people turn to ultra-processed foods to save money and time when both are in short supply.
We know how to increase plant food consumption among under-resourced populations: by providing increased SNAP benefits. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, SNAP beneficiaries were allotted either an additional $95 per month in benefits or the maximum benefit allowed for their household size, whichever was greater. This resulted in improved nutritional status for families, and benefited farmworkers and the food industry as a whole. Further, SNAP recipients in a pilot study who received a fruit and vegetable subsidy not only purchased more fresh produce but also decreased their consumption of UPFs and drank fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.
However, Congress recently passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, putting an end to the emergency allotment. By March 2023, all SNAP recipients will have their monthly benefits cut substantially, by as much as $200 per household in California. Some beneficiaries may receive as little as $23 per month. Meanwhile, the price of food is expected to rise by as much as 7.1% in 2023, and the cost of vegetables has gone up by 80% due to ongoing drought.
Food insecurity, already on the rise due to the pandemic, will increase as a result of these changes, and those impacted by the cuts will likely turn to food banks to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, the offerings at food banks tend to be of poor nutritional quality, exceeding recommendations for sugar and salt, while failing to provide sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables. Diet quality for low-income households will further deteriorate, while diet-related health complications, and their resulting costs, will increase.
However, some of the damage may yet be undone. In 2023, the Farm Bill, a major piece of federal legislation, is up for its five-year review. Over 75% of the Farm Bill’s outlays go to nutrition programs, of which SNAP is by far the largest. One proposal that will be presented this year is S.2192, known as the Close the Meal Gap Act of 2021. Under this bill, SNAP would use the Lower Cost Food Plan as the basis for calculating allotments, rather than the Thrifty Food Plan. This would allow for substantially higher monthly benefits and the ability to purchase more fruits and vegetables, allowing Americans living in poverty to enjoy the benefits of a plant-forward diet. In supporting S.2192, we have the opportunity to reduce both nutritional disparities and healthcare costs, something I hope all politicians — regardless of party affiliation — can endorse.