A new program to double some food stamps is a bad idea

Local produce is good. Affordable is better.
Local produce is good. Affordable is better.
Image: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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The federal government recently unveiled a new $100 million dollar program that seeks to combat hunger in America through increased access to farmers markets. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will be doubling the value of benefits for locally grown fruits and vegetables. What this means is that when customers use SNAP to buy produce at farmers markets, they are given an additional voucher to buy even more from these local vendors.

Supporting local farmers sounds virtuous and healthy, but the reality is that to benefit local farmers, more distant farmers are penalized. Produce from these other farmers will not qualify for the benefit and will therefore be more expensive to consumers. A family that would normally buy their apples from a neighboring state at a supermarket will instead alter their purchase because this program artificially lowers the price of local produce. By altering customer behavior, this program creates both winners and losers. The winners are the local farmers whose produce qualifies for the benefit; the losers are the farmers that do not qualify.

Under the guise of promoting healthier options for SNAP recipients, this new program unfairly favors some businesses—small, local producers—over others—larger farmers and supermarkets.

From the perspective of a working mother, trying to feed her children, why does she care if her zucchini is grown locally, or a thousand miles away? Price is her greatest concern. American agricultural productivity has doubled in the last sixty years due to innovative technologies like mechanization, irrigation, and fertilizers that allow farmers to work more land and yield more crops. We have all benefited from this: In the 1930s Americans spent more than of 25% of their income on food, while today, we spend less than 10%. This means that American families can now spend more on other goods and services to improve the quality of their lives.

While the new SNAP program is championed by supporters as promoting more nutritious options, the reality is, big supermarkets match, and even exceed the nutritional benefits that local farmers markets offer. For example, research shows that frozen vegetables are actually more nutritious than much fresh produce because frozen foods contain higher levels of antioxidants that would otherwise be lost without freezing. Additionally, studies show that canned fruits are as, or more, nutritious than fresh fruits because the canning process aids in vitamin absorption.

Grocery stores have plenty of options when it comes to eating healthy: Walmart and Target are working to lower the costs of organic and sustainable products using their supply chain expertise. These big box retailers are often maligned for putting local shops out of business, but they are experts in connecting producers with everyday Americans. The tag line is true: “Save money. Live better.” This new SNAP program, then, ignores retailers that have a proven track record in lowering prices for consumers.

The wealthy and well connected have always been able to eat well and the rise of large-scale farming and supermarkets with their national supply-chains have extended this luxury to more members of the economic ladder.

The way to understand this new program, then, is not as poverty alleviation but pork barrel politics. A farmer’s market in a so called “food desert” like Newark, New Jersey would be an obvious example. It is not a stretch to say that the poor in Newark need cheap food more than they need local food. If it is cheapness that is required, we must ask why this program does not apply to all produce regardless of where it is grown or sold.

The American taxpayer spends a tremendous amount of money helping the poor: SNAP benefits, in total, cost the taxpayer more than $76 billion dollars in 2013. Large amounts of money are inherently harder to manage because it is spread amongst countless smaller programs and initiatives. It is easy for unscrupulous politicians to divert funds towards their friends because any addition is small relative to the existing size of the program. This new program will not make the poor better off, but it will provide a tremendous benefit for some local farmers while driving up the cost of the program.

“Let them eat cake,” serves as a reminder of rulers with no understanding of the hardships experienced by the “commoners.” Today, the message seems to be “let them eat cukes.” Helping the poor is a noble endeavor but we should not let our compassion be misused as cover for pork barrel shenanigans.