Friday, April 26, 2013

USDA Study: Food Stamps Have Little Impact On Recipients' Healthy Food Choices

Agriculture Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Services says he hopes new Farm Bill will require all stores that take SNAP benefits to sell fruits and vegetables...
Low-income adults who receive Food Stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have almost identical eating habits to people who do not participate in the program, though there are some modest differences in their food choices, the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service said in a study released this week.

USDA promotes SNAP as a nutrition safety net that has two goals:  Increasing food security for Americans, and encouraging healthier food choices.  More than 47 million people now receive Food Stamps each month, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion monthly.  The number of people in the program has grown dramatically since President Obama's first term, following a trend that started before he took office.

The study compared adults whose income is 200% of the federal poverty rate or less and participate in SNAP with those who do not, and found that the SNAP participants’ diet is "a little less healthy."

"The evidence as to whether SNAP participation is beneficial or adverse regarding diet quality is inconclusive," said Christian Gregory, an author of the study, which did not include children.

Food Stamp recipients are allowed to use their benefits to purchase soda, cake, cookies, potato chips and other low-nutrition foods.  Critics have said USDA should do more to encourage healthy eating; public health advocates for years have called for banning soda purchases with SNAP dollars, and for restricting less nutritious foods from qualifying for purchase.  But food and beverage manufacturers, the grocery store industry and anti-hunger advocates have long and aggressively opposed any restrictions on what SNAP participants can purchase. 

About 82% of Food Stamps are redeemed in grocery stores, but 18% are redeemed in smaller establishments that do not always sell a wide range of healthy food, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Services Kevin Concannon noted in a conference call with reporters about the study.

"The habits of most Americans are not consistent with the recommendations of the dietary guidelines," Concannon said, and added that all Americans could benefit from eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat meats, and less sodium.

The government already require stores that are authorized to redeem benefits under the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to offer healthy foods and the result has been "positive," Concannon said.  WIC also restricts what food items can be purchased with benefits, in a dramatic difference from SNAP.

Concannon also pointed out that USDA has been conducting a pilot project to provide incentives to SNAP participants in western Massachusetts to encourage them to buy more fruits and vegetables.  The agency will release the results of that study in May.

But in 2011, USDA rejected a request from the state of New York to run its own pilot project with SNAP, designed to test if eliminating soda and sugary beverages would impact the prevalence of obesity.

Still, the study did show that SNAP participation increases the likelihood that people will consume whole fruits by 23 percentage points, though it decreases their intake of dark green/orange vegetables by a modest amount--the equivalent of about one ounce for a 2,000-calorie diet.

The study said that most people in the income category do not eat any whole fruit in the course of a normal day and that the SNAP money may make them feel that they can afford fruit.  The SNAP participants’ decision not to eat as much dark green/orange vegetables may be related to work requirements in some states and the fact that those vegetables usually require cooking, the study said.

Using a numerical method of analyzing the diet these findings lead to a conclusion that the SNAP participants’ diet is "a little less healthy."

Download:  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Leads to Modest Changes in Diet Quality [PDF]