Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently co-authored a Perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine that offered ideas for modifying the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to promote population health.

Why do you think SNAP needs to be updated?

SNAP is one of the largest safety net programs in the United States, and the largest nutrition program. It currently helps 45 million low-income Americans—nearly half of them children—pay for food each month. But while the program’s current benefits reduce hunger, they don’t go far enough to help most families to purchase healthy food.

What are some ways SNAP could be modified to promote healthier diets? 

Policies introduced in the two most recent Farm Bills?????the mechanism through which Congress authorizes SNAP—were a good start. The 2008 bill included a pilot program to test whether giving participants a 30-cent credit for fruits and vegetables for every SNAP dollar they spent increased purchases of these foods. It did, by 26 percent. The 2014 bill included a requirement that SNAP retailers make a wider variety of healthy foods available to participants.

But these and other initiatives within SNAP that encourage healthier food choices currently reach less than 5 percent of recipients. More funding is needed to expand these programs—or to fund new programs that encourage the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

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