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Neighborhood Dynamics in SNAP Participation and Food Access

Global Food for Thought by Katie Wilberding
AP Photos
A sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their EBT cards to shop at a farmer's market in Topsham, Maine.

Accounting for neighborhood characteristics can help remove barriers to SNAP enrollment.

Neighborhood characteristics play a significant role in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment. From linguistic diversity to demographic variances, differing neighborhood characteristics require curated responses to ensure equitable access to nutrition assistance and food security. To effectively address these issues, it is crucial to explore the complexities of neighborhoods. This exploration helps identify barriers to SNAP enrollment and provides valuable insights into how neighborhood factors shape SNAP outcomes, ultimately informing targeted strategies to improve participation rates, increase access to nutritious food, and foster healthier communities. 

Neighborhood Barriers to SNAP Enrollment 

Administrative complexities, language barriers, demographic variability, and price variations all change from one neighborhood to the next, and can hinder eligible populations from enrolling in SNAP. 

Administrative complexities, often delineated by neighborhood infrastructures, create bureaucratic impediments. For instance, the spatial distribution and operational efficacy of local SNAP enrollment centers can vary based on the neighborhood's socio-economic fabric, leaving some neighborhoods with better access to administrative assistance than others. The complexity and time-consuming nature of the SNAP application and recertification process also presents a significant barrier, particularly in neighborhoods where residents face compounding factors like poverty and job insecurity. The required documentation, forms, and procedures can be overwhelming and take significant time these individuals may not have. 

Language barriers, often prevalent in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods, are another significant obstacle. Limited proficiency in English can make it challenging for individuals to navigate the SNAP application process, understand program requirements, and communicate effectively with SNAP center staff. Without adequate language support, these individuals may not be able to access the necessary information and assistance to enroll. 

Demographic variability, characterized by the asymmetric distribution of specific population cohorts—be it racial and ethnic minorities, young people, or aging populations—can create a variety of resource accessibility issues. For instance, neighborhoods with a pronounced aging population might grapple with accessing digital services. Additionally, certain neighborhoods, such as those with a high population of racial and ethnic minorities, bear a disproportionate burden of food insecurity. These disparities are further perpetuated by structural factors, such as income inequality, systemic racism, limited educational opportunities, and social inequalities. 

Variations in food costs across neighborhoods further compound the challenges for SNAP participants. Adjustments to fixed SNAP benefits are necessary to account for variations in living costs, especially in expensive cities like New York, where higher-priced neighborhoods frequently feature costly grocers. This disparity makes it difficult for SNAP participants to afford nutritious food. Nuanced neighborhood characteristics warrant consideration in the meticulous recalibration of SNAP policies and interventions. 

SNAP Participation in Urban and Rural Areas 

Understanding and addressing food affordability is vital for effectively supporting SNAP participants and people with lower incomes. Geographic differences between urban and rural areas play a pivotal role in shaping affordability. Urban locales, while generally abundant in grocery stores and diverse food outlets, are paradoxically burdened by elevated living costs. These high costs can strain urban residents' budgets, making it challenging for them to afford nutritious foods. Conversely, rural areas, while not as burdened by high living costs, grapple with their own set of challenges. The limited availability of affordable and nutritious food, compounded by logistical hurdles like vast distances to grocery stores and inadequate transportation, can exacerbate food insecurity. As a result, rural residents might find themselves more reliant on SNAP, not just to combat hunger, but to ensure they have access to nutritionally adequate food. 

A study conducted in a rural Appalachian community aimed to identify patterns of food insecurity among rural, lower-income individuals eligible for SNAP benefits. The findings underscore the ongoing burden of food insecurity within the community, highlighting the need for tailored interventions that consider the rural context. Integrating SNAP with other aid programs and enhancing communication and support for participants can improve the effectiveness of the program and increase access to nutritious foods for these populations, emphasizing the importance of understanding urban and rural neighborhood contexts. 

Strategies for Enhancing SNAP Participation and Food Access 

Comprehensive interventions that address neighborhood trends are essential for promoting SNAP participation and improving food access. Understanding the underlying factors contributing to food insecurity and neighborhood disparities is crucial for designing effective strategies.  

Considering the neighborhood context means understanding the unique socio-economic, cultural, and logistical characteristics of a specific area and how these factors influence residents' behaviors, needs, and challenges. For instance, in a neighborhood with a high immigrant population, language barriers might impede understanding of SNAP benefits and its application process. Successful interventions, like multilingual outreach campaigns or local information centers with interpreters, have been implemented in such contexts. Additionally, recognizing that many SNAP participants live in neighborhoods with limited access to fresh produce, several states have collaborated with local farmers' markets, allowing SNAP benefits to be matched or even doubled, promoting healthier eating and supporting local agriculture. Another example is the "Healthy Incentives Pilot" in Massachusetts, which provided SNAP participants with incentives to purchase fruits and vegetables in certain areas, leading to a 26 percent increase in fruit and vegetable consumption

Addressing food insecurity requires initiatives that improve affordability and accessibility for all neighborhoods, such as online grocery options and discount programs. Online groceries break geographical barriers, allowing SNAP participants, especially those in food deserts1 or food swamps,2 to access diverse food options. For example, rural regions often have fewer grocery stores, requiring residents to travel long distances for fresh produce—a seemingly impossible task for people without access to a personal vehicle. With an online grocery option, these residents could more easily access nutritious food without having to worry about their distance from the grocery store. Discount programs, on the other hand, directly tackle affordability and enable healthier food choices within limited budgets. Urban locales, while generally dense with food retailers, grapple with higher food prices and a dominance of convenience stores over full-service grocers, and could thereby substantially benefit from a discount program. Ensuring these benefits reach urban SNAP participants is crucial for equitable access to healthy diets. 

Understanding Neighborhood Characteristics Enhances Food Access 

Understanding and addressing neighborhood factors is vital in enhancing SNAP participation and improving food access for people with lower incomes. Neighborhood-specific issues, like administrative complexities, language barriers, demographic variability, and price variations, along with differences between urban and rural neighborhoods, impact how people access SNAP benefits. Tailoring strategies to account for neighborhood differences can more effectively address food insecurity and enhance food access. By utilizing the insights gained from research on neighborhood differences in SNAP enrollment, policymakers and program administrators can implement evidence-based strategies that promote equitable access to SNAP benefits and address the unique challenges faced by people in all types of neighborhoods. By doing so, we can work towards alleviating food insecurity and enhancing the overall well-being of vulnerable populations. 

  • 1Food deserts are areas where residents, often in low-income neighborhoods, have limited access to grocery stores or healthy food outlets.
  • 2Food swamps are regions saturated with fast-food outlets, and lack nutritious options.
About the Author
Katie Wilberding
Intern, Center on Global Food and Agriculture
Headshot of Katie Wilberding.
Katie Wilberding joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as a 2023 summer intern with the Center on Global Food and Agriculture.
Headshot of Katie Wilberding.