December 15, 2014
Although some economists reported that the recession ended in 2009, Maryland experienced an increased participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP, the federal nutrition assistance support program formerly known as food stamps, serves as the main source of food for low-income people and families. SNAP benefits are redeemed by program participants through vouchers or Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) / Independence accounts on a monthly basis. While the number of participants in SNAP is well reported, the amount of money redeemed by authorized stores has not been reviewed in quite the same detail. Having SNAP retail redemption data could potentially show where most of these low-income beneficiaries are getting their food. Local governments, food policy councils (FPCs), and researchers could use this information and work together to expand access to healthy foods. In order to understand where SNAP participants have used their benefits since the end of the recession, the Maryland Food System Map Project collected and analyzed the Food and Nutrition Service’s data in Maryland.
The Map Project team was originally inspired by some previous SNAP retail and map-related efforts that other organizations have done. In 2010 Michael Morisy on MuckRock News, an independent news source, released an analysis on Massachusetts’ SNAP program. He used Google Fusion to display data from the fiscal years 2006 to 2009. The data included SNAP redemptions by individual retailers. The analysis explores the growth in total expenditures across Massachusetts, location of participating SNAP retailers, and lists the top ten stores by the amount of funds they redeemed. Aside from MuckRock News, The Reinvestment Fund, a non-profit that works on a variety of community development projects, released PolicyMap.com, which maps a variety of health, economic, and education indicators. They utilize Geographic Information System (GIS) data from 2008 through 2012 that include the number of licensed stores to receive SNAP by county, as well as the amount of SNAP redemptions by county. While these sources, particularly PolicyMap.com, have SNAP data on Maryland, the data we received from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) goes into much greater detail. We were able to obtain the number of stores by a more defined geographic area (zip codes rather than just counties).
With this data, the Map Project’s main goal for this analysis is to identify any trends in Maryland regarding reimbursement by area. During the data collection process, the Map Project team met a few barriers. When first contacting the Maryland Department of Human Resources (MDHR), we were initially unable to obtain any data due to privacy restrictions for SNAP retailers – we were told that they could not share store-level SNAP redemption data with us. According to the Food and Nutrition Act and federal regulations (Title 7 Part 278 at 278.1 (q)), “individual retailer SNAP redemptions are protected.”
Around the same time, we learned that the USDA encouraged the public to submit comments on the current availability of individual store data. On September 8, 2014, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) submitted a comment on the FNS website in support of releasing SNAP retailer redemptions to the public.
Even though MDHR was unwilling to share individual store-level redemption data with us, they did provide us with contact information for people at the USDA and suggested we contact them directly with our data request. After speaking with a representative from the SNAP Mid-Atlantic Regional Office on the phone, we were redirected back to the FNS. Since we knew we would not be able to obtain individual store-level redemption data, we requested SNAP redemptions from retail stores aggregated by zip code or census tract. The FNS responded to our request promptly, sending us SNAP redemption data aggregated by zip code for calendar years 2009 through 2013 (the most recent years of information available). It should be noted that the FNS has a policy of redacting data from zip codes with only three stores or less so redemption numbers cannot be easily tied to an individual store. We decided not to continue pursuing individual store data (protected by the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA) because aggregate level data would be more accessible and easier to display. Although we do not have access to those zip code areas that have fewer than three stores, to answer our question of which areas have the highest SNAP redemption rates, we would only need access to the highest concentration of SNAP redemptions. From the data, we drew the following conclusions.
1) The number of authorized stores steadily increased over time.
In 2009, there were a total of 2,753 authorized stores documented in Maryland. By 2013, the prevalence of SNAP authorized stores increased to 3,918, a 42 percent increase over five years. However, a noteworthy observation is that the number of zip codes that have four or more authorized stores did not change by much. There were 294 zip codes in FY 2009 and 317 in FY 2012, a 7.8 percent increase. Looking at zip codes gives us a better idea of how many authorized SNAP stores are selling in different counties. This provides geographically specific information as to where SNAP is being used.
2) The total number of redacted zip codes decreased. Therefore, there are more stores that accept SNAP.
In FY 2009, there were 126 counted redacted zip codes. However, this number decreased to 121, and then by 2011, plateaued at 120 zip codes. This measure does not take into account stores that went back and forth between redacted and non-redacted status (e.g., if a zip code was redacted because some stores closed, or if new zip codes included had less authorized stores).
3) The highest SNAP redemptions are concentrated in a select few areas.
Between 2009 and 2013, the total amount of SNAP spending was the highest in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Over that same time period, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County saw the largest increase in SNAP redemptions. The following two tables suggest that most SNAP retail activity is occurring in these three areas. This may be attributed to the fact that these three counties have the largest populations compared to other counties in Maryland.
Table 1: Top 10 zip codes with with largest increase in SNAP redemptions
|Rank||Population (in 2010)||County||# Stores(in 2013)||Zip Code||Percent Change|
Table 2: Top 10 zip codes with with highest total SNAP redemptions
|Rank||Population(in 2010)||County||Zip Code||Redemption|
These observations can help identify specific areas to target healthy food initiatives, as well as track how food accessed through SNAP may change with the new Farm Bill. We developed an interactive SNAP map to display data from 2013 as an additional resource (see below).
In 2014, the new Farm Bill included key developments for SNAP retailers: discontinued funding for EBT equipment in new stores. This may have implications on the increasing amount of redemptions from retailers; more so, it may prevent SNAP beneficiaries from obtaining SNAP subsidized foods from new retailers. Ultimately, continuing SNAP data collection in Maryland (and beyond) would be beneficial to understand how these changes may affect the program, and more importantly, if people and families are receiving sufficient amounts of much needed food.