I have written before that change in the Food Desert requires more than simply improving access. While access is a significant barrier, a recent report by the IOM, which I found via the blog U.S. Food Policy, suggests that another major barrier to healthy eating may simply be finding time to prepare food. The committee suggested that the current "Thrifty Food Plan" relies too heavily on scratch cooking and does not allow sufficient money to purchase more convenient foods.
Of course, considering the function of SNAP is to provide nutritional assistance and not merely address hunger, there are some obvious concerns about changing the program to make room for convenience foods, which may not be the best sources of nutrition. The IOM outlines this simply in financial terms (more money to make quicker, more convenient foods more accessible.) In my opinion, improving education on food, nutrition and cooking is equally important in addressing this issue.
For instance, raw grapes, bananas and carrots could hardly be more convenient and yet are unprocessed foods whose health benefits are fairly evident. Other examples of convenient healthy foods have been featured on this blog: lentils, for example, take very little time and preparation to make. Techniques such as crock-pot or microwave cooking can make scratch cooking significantly easier. Unfortunately, unless there is some provision to teach people how to stock their pantry, plan meals, and cook them, many people aren't going to get the full benefit of taxpayers' contribution to SNAP.
A friend tipped me off to a project in Chicago attempting to address this discrepancy. While they still sell convenience foods, Louis Groceries is a not-for-profit whose mission is to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved neighborhoods - but they don't stop there. Part of their mission is to provide education in the form of cooking and nutrition classes inside the store. Since the store is a registered non-profit, they can afford to experiment with their offerings and find strategies to increase sales of fruits and vegetables. The store reports that customers, while still purchasing "fringe foods," are also buying foods like...wait for it....bananas and grapes.