Secretary Tom Vilsack,
When I say access to healthy food is not just for the rich, but a basic human right for ALL American families, something tells me you agree. You and I are not alone; more than 300,000 people have recently signed a petition at Thriveaction.org urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under your leadership, to help the 46 million Americans who depend on food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for survival gain access to healthy food.
For 23 million Americans today, it is easier to access a fast food restaurant than it is to find healthy groceries. They live in communities where they have to travel miles to find healthy food for their families, called food deserts. This lack of access to healthy foods leaves the residents in these poorer communities susceptible to chronic illnesses like diabetes. We can change this. Technological advancements over the past 10 years, including the proliferation of smartphones, have dramatically increased access to the internet throughout our country. While there have been previous pilot programs allowing consumers to place an order online and process their SNAP benefits at the point of delivery, there are no retailers currently able to complete online transactions at the time of order. We need to do more to make a real impact. By allowing people to use their SNAP benefits online, we could ensure that all people have access to healthy foods, regardless of where they live.
One critical example of this need can be found within the Native American community. Councilman Cody Two Bears shared with us that in his community of Cannon Ball in the Standing Rock reservation of North Dakota, 1 out of 5 people suffer from diabetes and mainly because of their diets. He added that the closest grocery store is a Walmart about an hour away and during the cold winters, they depend on a small convenience store for all of their groceries.
The effect of this type of restricted access can be seen all around the country. We are now seeing a new generation of children who will potentially have a shorter lifespan than their own parents. We can’t let this happen to our children, our future leaders. The ability of these families to use their SNAP benefits to have healthy food delivered to their homes will change the lives of so many in these vulnerable communities. Those with limited transportation or mobility like the elderly and veterans will benefit most.
Increasingly, policymakers agree. Today, Senator Cory Booker, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Congressman Tim Ryan have joined together to thank you for your efforts to increase access to healthy food for low-income families and ask that you consider accelerating the process in order to save lives. As you know, our country is in the midst of an obesity and diabetes epidemic, spending over $245 billion dollars a year on the treatment of diabetes alone. Researchers estimate that if the obesity rate stays consistent, by 2030 51% of the population will be obese and U.S. healthcare spending will rise by as much as $66 to $68 billion annually. Your ability to allow all families to have access to healthy food is a necessity for the health and economic prosperity of our nation.
As we get closer to seeing a new administration take over Washington, D.C., I strongly believe that you will do all that you can to help American families until your very last day at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The time is now and the time is yours to uplift the voices of some of the most vulnerable communities and shift the narrative. Please don’t let our children and low-income communities down. I urge you to exercise your authority today and allow food stamps to be used online.
Shailene Woodley is an actress and activist.