Growing a Healthier Future: Improving Nutrition and Access to Healthy Food for Americans

Tom Vilsack
Mar 7, 2016 · 8 min read

Since taking office in 2009, the Obama Administration has strengthened the core USDA nutrition programs that support our nation’s vulnerable populations while, at the same time, putting in place strategies that improve the nutritional quality of the foods we provide. Alongside our partners, we’ve developed innovative strategies designed to make our country’s safety net better, smarter and more efficient, while also safeguarding taxpayer dollars in our programs. Our unwavering commitment to science-based food and nutrition policies has lifted millions of Americans out of poverty and has undoubtedly contributed to our country’s national and economic security.

This is Part II in a two-part series examining our work over the last seven years to build a healthier next generation equipped with the tools they will need to succeed. Catch up on Part I here.

Providing Critical Nutrition Assistance to Those in Need

USDA administers one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Each month, SNAP provides low-income Americans in every state with benefits to buy food at supermarkets, grocery stores and other authorized retailers. The large majority of households receiving SNAP include children, individuals with disabilities, the elderly and working adults. In fact, two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to households with children. And among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half worked while receiving SNAP — that share increases to 80 percent if you include those working in the year before or after receiving SNAP.

For families that need it, SNAP provides a highly effective safety net by helping put food on the table, and reducing poverty nationwide. Last year, SNAP kept at least 4.7 million Americans — including 2.1 million children — out of poverty. During the Great Recession, SNAP benefits helped to cut the number of children living in extreme poverty in half. Not only does SNAP reduce food insecurity, it leads to improved health and educational outcomes for adults and children. Research indicates that when disadvantaged children have had access to SNAP throughout early childhood, their likelihood of being obese decreases significantly, while their likelihood of graduating from high school increase significantly.

Knowing SNAP’s effectiveness, USDA has worked closely with Congress to continue to ensure access to SNAP for those who qualify, while strengthening the program. Since 2008, access to SNAP for eligible individuals has grown by about 20 percent in response to the economic crisis. But as the economy has improved, we’ve seen participation decline by over 2 million participants from its peak which is what the program is designed to do.

We have also taken steps to encourage purchases of nutritious food with SNAP benefits, and access to fresh food using SNAP benefits has increased under this Administration. Research shows that investing as little as 15 cents per person per day can result in a 25 percent increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults. And, thanks to USDA support, the number of SNAP-authorized farmers, roadside farm stands and farmers markets has grown dramatically, from 753 in 2008 to more than 6,400 today — that’s more than eight times the number of vendors accepting SNAP than when this Administration took office.

The 2014 Farm Bill also encourage nutritious purchasing patterns by providing $100 million for incentives at the point-of-sale for SNAP participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables in various venues, including farmers markets and retail stores. Partner organizations and state governments joined in the effort by providing matching funds meaning that $1 in SNAP benefits can purchase up to $2 in fruits and vegetables. The program, called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, awarded its first round of grants in the spring of 2015 and announced the availability of a second round of funding in October 2015.

We’re also helping people transition off SNAP with job training and placement. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require some education beyond high school. To compete for these jobs, it’s important that SNAP participants have the skills they need to keep up with a rapidly evolving job market. In 2015, USDA invested over $300 million in state employment and training programs designed to help participants build comprehensive skill sets and match them with the well-paying jobs they need to move off the program. SNAP Employment and Training, called E&T, can help unemployed workers get back on their feet and offer workers in low-wage jobs additional skills training to advance their careers. In March 2016, USDA selected 10 states to take part in SNAP to Skills, a peer-to-peer effort to assist states in designing employment and training programs to help adults on SNAP find jobs and transition off the program.

But while SNAP helps families stretch their food budgets and reduce food insecurity, current benefit levels often are not sufficient to sustain them through the end of the month. New research has linked diminished food budgets at the end of each month to high-cost consequences, including an increase in the rate of hospital admissions due to low blood sugar, an increase in the rate of disciplinary actions among school children, and diminished student performance on standardized tests, with performance improving only gradually again after the next month’s benefits are received.

Providing Nutrition Advice to America’s Families

In 2011, USDA created MyPlate, a new tool to promote healthier eating at mealtimes. MyPlate takes the place of the older Food Pyramid and helps communicate science-based recommendations for healthy eating by giving Americans an easy visual method to help them find the right dietary proportions and keep their families’ plates healthy. Since its launch, MyPlate has been translated into 20 different languages, while offers resources in English and Spanish including materials for preschoolers, kids, teens, college students, adults and pregnant and breastfeeding moms. These resources have been downloaded over 100 million times.

USDA’s SuperTracker, a free online nutrition planning and tracking tool, has received more than 477.7 million page views and averages 4,400 new registered users daily. Since its launch in December 2011, SuperTracker has helped over 6 million registered users improve food choices and track physical activity. SuperTracker allows Americans to build a healthier diet based on individual needs and personal preferences and helps put nutrition guidance into practice for day-to-day activities.

And, in January 2016, with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services, USDA announced the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Published every five years, the Dietary Guidelines serve as a research-based guide for nutrition advice reflecting the current body of science. These recommendations help Americans make healthy food and beverage choices and serve as the foundation for vital nutrition policies and programs across the United States.

Maintaining Excellence and Safeguarding the Taxpayer Investment in Nutrition Programs

For the past seven years, USDA and our partners have confronted misinformation about the integrity and stewardship of nutrition programs, especially SNAP. The reality is that SNAP has one of the lowest rates of error and fraud in the entire federal government, mainly because of important steps taken by USDA since 2009 to protect taxpayer investment in SNAP and make sure the program is there for those who truly need it. Since I took office, USDA has initiated aggressive new tactics to investigate illegal activity and remove bad actors from the program. USDA efforts have also resulted in a significant reduction in trafficking — the exchange of SNAP benefits for cash — which was as high as 4 percent 15 years ago. Today, it is 1.3 percent.

Over the course of the Administration, USDA analysts and investigators have also worked tirelessly to review over 110,000 stores for compliance monitoring purposes. As a result, investigations were conducted on more than 39,000 stores nationwide to ensure program integrity.

Looking Toward the Future

Between 2012 and 2014, child poverty fell further than it had since 2000, an indication that the economic recovery is beginning to improve prospects for low-income families. Still, in 2014, roughly 2.5 million children in rural areas were poor and approximately 1.2 million children lived in rural families with incomes below half of the poverty line.

As the economy continues to improve, USDA is looking toward the future with new ways of thinking about building a stronger next generation of Americans with a particular focus on our nation’s must vulnerable populations. That’s why we’re working across the government and with partners to bundle resources that ensure families are getting all the information they need to make the right choices for their families, from the child to the parent.

This multigenerational approach is the focus of Rural Impact, a new effort from the White House Rural Council to address the challenge of rural poverty by bringing together federal agencies and public and private resources to help children and families. Rural Impact grantees combat poverty and improve upward mobility in rural and tribal places by increasing employment and education and improving the health and well-being of children and families. In 2015, USDA launched the Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, which will use cutting-edge solutions in child nutrition to reduce child food insecurity in states with the highest numbers of persistently poor rural counties.

It’s also important to acknowledge that, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that reduced incidences of poverty and hunger for millions of Americans, to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, to the 2014 Farm Bill which preserved the structure of SNAP while adding new provisions to ensure integrity, many of the positive changes noted here would not have been possible without the bipartisan support of the U.S. Congress. In the last year of this Administration, USDA is eager to work with Congress to make progress on cementing a strong future for child nutrition programs and finding creative ways to reduce rural and urban poverty alike.

Cover photo: Fall peppers and chili at Bloomingdale Farmers Market, a park side street location in Washington, D.C.

USDA Results

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