October 9, 2012 by nutritionpolicy2012
Food insecurity is an issue faced by many Americans. Recognizing that nobody should go hungry, governmental programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC), the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program seek to offer food assistance to low-income adults and their children. The 2008 Farm Bill American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 have been successful in increasing SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) participation and benefits in the past few years. The question remains, have the efforts of USDA supported programs really helped to improve the health of low-income Americans?
In this election year, governmental spending regarding USDA domestic food and nutrition assistance programs has been scrutinized. Spending on these programs is closely tied to the economy. Google the terms food assistance programs or SNAP, and you’ll find all the Obama-smashing figures you can imagine such as this one.
Though food assistance programs can be easy political targets, the truth is that the 2009 ARRA stimulus has enabled low-income households who qualify for SNAP to spend more on food, leading to a 2.2% decline in food insecurity in these groups despite our current recession.
Controversy also surrounds SNAP’s effectiveness in improving the overall health of participants. Obesity in this country has been receiving far more attention than food insecurity, so how does that fit into the equation? A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that low-income SNAP participants were of lower overall quality than low-income nonparticipants (1). They consumed more sugar sweetened beverages and fewer whole grains than their nonparticipant counterparts. Understandably, quite a bit of discussion surrounds whether or not limitations should be placed on the types of foods one can buy with SNAP. WIC-approved foods must follow specific health guidelines. Should SNAP-approved foods meet the same criteria or would restrictions simply decrease participation?
Many low-income Americans live in food deserts. A food desert is defined as a low-income census tract where a substantial percentage of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store (2). According to the USDA 6,529 food-desert census tracts have been identified in the continental U.S. Though individuals in these food deserts have low access to grocery stores, they often have plenty of access to corner stores and fast food establishments that serve up less than ideal options in terms of nutrition. The availability of unhealthy foods and lack of availability of healthy foods in these areas has been linked the development of chronic disease associated with obesity.
The National School Lunch Program has recently gotten in on the movement addressing childhood obesity by enforcing new, stricter guidelines about what can and cannot be offered in school cafeterias. It is still too early to see whether this change will help to make a difference in decreasing childhood obesity or if it will just increase the hunger levels in the kids that need the program most. Either way, it is clear that most students are not happy with the changes to school lunches.
Because our food deserts are more like swamps of processed foods and SNAP offers low-income individuals equal access to unhealthy foods, we cannot deal with the issue of food insecurity without considering obesity. While overweight and obesity are major concerns for Americans in all income brackets, and a shift in socials norms is needed, we need to approach these topics in a unique way with those whose food options are limited by their low-income status. Clearly there is no simple solution to the hunger-obesity paradox, so the government can’t just “SNAP to it” and fix this dilemma overnight. While maintaining the programs that are in place, incentives may encourage participants to choose healthier foods through SNAP. Also, coordinated, widespread efforts involving social media and increasing access to healthy foods must be made in order to make a slow but steady change in social norms. It will not be fast or easy, but it is certainly an approach worth discussing!
- Leung CW, Ding EL, Catalano PJ, Villamor E, Rimm EB, Willett WC. (2012). Dietary intake and dietary quality of low-income adults in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Am J Clin Nutr, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.040014
- USDA Economic Research Service Food Desert Locator. Available from http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator/go-to-the-locator.aspx (Accessed 2012, October 4)