Panel Paper: Supply-Side Responses to SNAP Benefit Changes and the Effect on the Local Food Environment

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8212 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jonathan Cantor1, Brian Elbel2 and Andrew Breck2, (1)RAND Corporation, (2)New York University

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides near cash-benefits to over 40 million American. Program benefits are redeemable for nearly any food or beverage at retailers who meet the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) stocking requirements. Prior to January 2018, SNAP-authorized retailers were required to stock 3 varieties of items in 4 staple food categories: vegetables or fruits, dairy products, meat, poultry, or fish, and breads or cereals. In January 2018, the number of required food items was raised in order to increase the supply of healthy food items in SNAP-authorized retailers. The enhanced stocking requirements may ensure that SNAP redemptions are made at stores with at least some healthful choices, but they also place an indirect cost on marginal food retailers.

Few policy changes have impacted SNAP food environment. In 2009, however, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funded a temporary 19 percent average benefit increase. The number of convenience stores and small grocery stores authorized to accept SNAP benefits rose dramatically in the years after this benefit increase, and subsequently fell beginning in 2013 when the ARRA funded benefit increase was reduced. The change in benefit size has been established to have impacts on SNAP purchases. No study has exclusively studied the impact of the change in benefit size on the supply of SNAP-authorized retailers or SNAP food environment.

In this paper, we explore the supply side response to changes in the SNAP benefit level. This is the first evaluation to examine the impact of SNAP-store authorization dynamics on food access and the food environment. We examine whether changes in the number and the type of SNAP-authorized retailers affects access to healthful food retailers, such as supermarkets, full-service grocers, and fruit and vegetable retailers. We hypothesize that the supply-side response to SNAP policy changes is heterogeneous in both the type of retailer and across areas with low-food access (e.g., “food deserts”), moderate food access, (e.g., “food swamps”), and high food access areas. This is an important research question given the enhanced SNAP retailer requirements has an exception if the retailer is located in an area where SNAP clients have significantly limited access to food. We test our hypothesis on the heterogeneous effect using longitudinal administrative records of all SNAP store authorizations in the United States from 2006-2017, which we linked to historical business data for all food retailers and census tract level indicators of food deserts and food swamps.

This work has important policy implications for understanding the role of SNAP-authorized retailers in the food environment, and for anticipating potential supply-side responses to increased SNAP-authorized food stocking requirements that went into effect in January 2018.