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Reducing SNAP Restrictions to Make Food Preparation Easier for Families

Global Food for Thought by Samanta Dunford
A person reaches to grab a green grape from a shelf of fruit in a grocery store.

Food preparation is a common barrier to accessing healthy, nutritious meals for families, making SNAP expansions vital to food security.

In June of 2022, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, the Chicago Council partnered with World Central Kitchen to hold listening sessions across the country to hear directly from individuals with lived experiences with food and nutrition insecurity. Partnering also with on-the-ground community-based organizations in Oakland, California, Chicago, Illinois, and Selma, Alabama, our goal was to hear from people to find out what works and what doesn’t with existing federal nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and what improvements participants would like to see to better address their food and nutrition security. In a series of blogs, we will highlight some of the feedback received from individuals ahead of the September White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. 

A Common Barrier to Access 

People were asked about their experiences with food insecurity, and food preparation emerged as a common barrier to access of healthy, nutritious meals. Many SNAP participants highlighted the challenges they encounter when turning ingredients into meals for themselves and their families. While programs have been put into place to teach people to cook and use unfamiliar ingredients, there remains a gap when it comes to having available the non-food resources necessary to safely and easily prepare food. SNAP recipients are currently unable to purchase non-food items with their benefits. Some, like Mary* from Oakland, “end[s] up wasting a lot of [food]” they buy because they don’t have what they need to properly prepare meals. Mothers from the Chicago listening session believe they “should be able to use [SNAP] on anything in a grocery store,” including “cleaning supplies” that might be necessary to prepare healthy meals. This is especially important for SNAP recipients who live in transitional housing or are unhoused and lack access to a kitchen or hygiene facilities, which could put them at higher risk of foodborne illnesses. Other non-food items important for the safe storage of food include plastic reusable storage bags and containers both of which are found in grocery stores. Expansion of SNAP eligible items to include food preparation and hygiene items found in grocery and other food stores will be critical for safely preparing and storing food. 

Why Do Expanded SNAP Purchases Matter? 

The original intention of SNAP was “to improve participants food security and their access to a healthy diet.” SNAP as a program limits the number of participants through eligibility requirements set by both federal and state governments. Households involved in the program received on average $239 a month in non-cash benefits in FY 2018. SNAP places restrictions on how this money can be used, and it currently prohibits recipients from using benefits towards the purchase of “hot foods,” cleaning and household supplies, and hygiene items.

SNAP restrictions are in place to ensure taxpayer money is used to increase food security and improve diets. However, healthy meals require more than raw ingredients. There are many other tools that are needed to cook, and even more to do so safely. The CDC guidelines for food preparation state that there are “four steps for food safety: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.” A federal program designed to ensure “access to a healthy diet” should also include access to the necessary supplies to wash hands, separate potential contaminants, ensure the correct internal temperature for cooked food, and airtight storage for leftovers. Richard, an Oakland SNAP recipient, says he needs more from the program because right now he “can’t cook and eat the things I would like to put in my body.”  

Making Food for a Family: Policy vs. Reality 

Margie, a Chicago mom of three, explains that she “can’t cook” because she lives in a hotel and has only a microwave. She says she must “get food from [community kitchens] or buy [it premade].” Like many families receiving SNAP, she struggles to make even the simplest of meals. SNAP needs to consider difficult living situations like hers when modifying food assistance programs to promote healthy eating.  

An example of a simple meal that is difficult to make for many families is a box of macaroni and cheese, a quick and easy meal that is popular with children. The instructions on the box include four simple steps: boil water, drain the pasta, add the ingredients, and eat! But for struggling families, these steps are a little more complicated. First, a family needs to live in a place with access to a kitchen that includes a working stove to boil water. Second, a family needs a working kitchen to include cooking tools and equipment like a saucepan, a spoon for stirring, a colander, and a measuring cup. Also, cleaning supplies like paper towels would be useful for any spills. Preventing food waste is especially important for families on a budget, and they need proper storage for leftovers. Making a meal is a process, and there are challenges associated with not just acquiring the ingredients but having the right tools and equipment to prepare them before a family can consume a meal. Federal nutrition assistance programs should better address these challenges, especially for families living in transitional housing or experiencing homelessness.  

Trade-Offs and Other Factors 

While families on SNAP say they must often “make do,” it doesn’t mean they should have to. To be eligible for SNAP, families “must be or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line,” which for a family of three is living on less than $2,379 a month in FY 2022. They must contend with other costs like housing, utilities, healthcare, and transportation. Mike, an Oaklander, faces difficult trade-offs “to the point of making the decision for the gas to get to work to make the money to pay the bill, [the] rent, the gas, then eat,” because if he doesn’t pay the power bill he can’t “cook the food.” Many of these costs are rising across the country, especially in places with already high costs of living. Families who participate in federal nutrition programs feel the pressure of limited resources to shrink their food spending because, unlike bills, the only risk is being hungry. They should be able to use federal nutrition program funds to meet the programs’ stated goals and keep their families safely fed with healthy, nutritious foods.  

Get Engaged with Changing SNAP 

American families are already struggling with rising costs of food, housing, and other living expenses. Inflation is decreasing purchasing power and leaving families with less to spend on their necessities. Expanding the SNAP purchase list to include food preparation and hygiene items is an important step in ensuring struggling families can meet their needs safely and with dignity. The upcoming White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health is an important place to implore the Biden Administration to act and fulfill their pledge for greater equity. This will help Congress lay the groundwork for further change during the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization, which authorizes SNAP and other federal nutrition programs, to make these and other important changes law.   

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of listening session participants.  

About the Author
Samanta Dunford
Former Research Assistant, Center on Global Food and Agriculture
Samanta Dunford joined the Council in 2021 to support research and policy activities including engagement with key stakeholders in Washington, D.C.