In case you missed it, Congress is in the midst of a pretty major food fight. At the center of it is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is the first line of defense against hunger for more than 21 million American households. Going forward, however, an estimated 2 million people stand to lose SNAP benefits if the farm bill proposal passed by the House of Representatives last month becomes law.
The bill’s draconian work requirements and eligibility changes threaten to upend the lives of some of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals and families. But it could also deliver a serious blow to the economic vitality of many rural and small-town communities, in an economic domino effect that often starts at the local grocery store.
Despite improvements in the national economy since the 2008 recession, rural communities across the United States continue to face economic uncertainty, and grocery stores are among the small-town businesses that are finding it hard to stay afloat. The challenges faced by rural food retailers are numerous: competition from increasingly powerful “big-box” stores, the rise of online retailers, and high operating costs are but a few of the challenges threatening the economic viability of today’s grocery stores. But there’s another major driver of food sales that impacts rural retailers and residents alike, and it has to do with how much families can afford to spend.
Many households in low-wage, low-prosperity rural counties turn to SNAP to augment their food budgets—in fact, they do so at higher rates than their urban counterparts. About 16 percent of households in rural or non-metro areas participate in the program, compared to 13 percent in metro areas. And in a recent analysis of publicly available data, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 136 of the 150 counties with the highest percentages of SNAP participation by household are located in rural areas.
We know the benefits that SNAP dollars bring to the people who use them. SNAP participation bolsters financial stability and food security; increases the likelihood that kids complete high school, while decreasing their risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome into adulthood; and saves about $1,400 in annual medical costs for low-income adults. But where do those dollars go next?