In the carrot vs. stick approach for improving the impact of the food stamp program, the carrot appears to be winning in South Carolina.
A pilot program approved by the state Legislature last year to double the value of food stamps used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets is expected to be up and running this summer. Meanwhile, federal officials have yet to respond to the state Department of Social Services’ waiver request to allow a pilot program that would require food stamp recipients in three counties to prove they are working or looking for jobs before they get benefits.
Audrey Rowe, administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said federal officials have given preference to programs that encourage healthier eating and have been reluctant to approve programs that could penalize food stamp recipients.
“Incentives work,” Rowe said before speaking at a nutrition conference Friday at the University of South Carolina. “If you give people additional resources to buy certain foods, once they do it once, they do it two or three times, and they have adjusted their habits. ... We have no data that shows that restrictions work.”
A variety of pilot programs have been approved in other states to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, to battle the country’s rise in obesity. Any change in the food stamp program must be approved by the agriculture department. All of the major waivers approved so far have involved incentives.
The federal agency has received only one formal waiver request that called for restricting what can be bought with food stamps, Rowe said. The agency in 2010 turned down that waiver request from New York City to ban the use of food stamps to buy soft drinks.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley last year encouraged the Department of Social Services, which manages the food stamp program in the state, to come up with a waiver request as part of the state’s anti-obesity effort. Several public hearings on the subject dealt mainly with putting restrictions on which foods could be purchased with food stamps.
In March, however, the Haley administration announced the state instead would request a waiver requiring the 33,200 food stamp recipients in Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties to prove they have jobs or are looking for work. The state DSS said the decision was based on research at Ohio State University that “shows that SNAP recipients are likely to become less healthy the longer they receive SNAP benefits.”
Jay Zagorsky, the lead author of the Ohio State study, said the most logical takeaway from his research was that food stamp benefits are too meager to pay for healthy foods. Zagorsky cited agriculture department statistics that show the average person in the U.S. spends $4.10 on food per meal, but the average SNAP benefit is $1.50 per meal. “The only way to eat on $1.50 when the typical person is spending $4.10 is to either eat less or buy cheaper food,” he said.
Marilyn Matheus, spokeswoman for the state social services agency, said it “anxiously awaits a decision” on the waiver request.
Rowe said she hasn’t seen the jobs-based waiver request from South Carolina, and she has a hard time envisioning any twist on the idea that would be approved.
“As we look at attempts to restrict food stamp purchases, the challenge is how to do it and have the desired effect,” she said. For instance, food stamps usually are a supplement to a family’s food budget. When people want to buy a restricted item, they could use their limited income.
State Sens. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, and Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, pushed for an incentive program last year. When DSS was awarded $1.9 million in federal funds for reducing the error rate in its food stamp program, Alexander and Clementa pushed a budget provision that put that money into a double-bucks program for food stamps at farmers markets.
The request for that change has been approved. The pilot program will begin in six farmers markets in the state this year, according to Carrie Draper, director of policy and community outreach at the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities at the University of South Carolina.
While Rowe likely won’t favor the Haley administration’s food stamp waiver request, she praised South Carolina officials for their support of school food improvement programs. She said 98 percent of schools in South Carolina are in compliance with new school food guidelines.
“The Legislature is engaged (regarding the school food improvements). The governor is engaged,” Rowe said. “They are doing what is necessary.”