A recent study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers finds that although the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) may help curb hunger, it doesn’t help poor Americans improve their diets and nutritional “food security.”
“After participating in SNAP for a few months, a substantial proportion of SNAP participants still reported marginal, low, or very low food security, which suggests that SNAP could do more to adequately address the problem of food insecurity,” said lead study author Dr. Eric Rimm in a press release. “Although one might hypothesize that the provision of SNAP benefits would result in the purchase and consumption of healthy foods (i.e. fruits, vegetables, whole grains), there was no appreciable improvement in dietary quality among SNAP participants after the initiation of benefits.”
But several policy changes could reverse this trend to help poor Americans afford — and choose — healthier foods.
The study found that SNAP beneficiaries ate significantly more refined grains — at least one extra serving per day — compared to poor Americans without food stamps. These are the types of grains that tend to have unhealthy types of carbohydrates and can be risk factors for diabetes and obesity. Fruit, vegetable, and whole grain consumption was low across the board.
“Among all study participants, baseline consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains was low, and consumption of refined grains, sweets and bakery desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages was high compared with the recommendation from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” wrote the researchers.
It isn’t very surprising that SNAP recipients turn to these products while shopping for food. From a nutritional standpoint, refined grains and other less healthy foods have more caloric bang-for-the-buck than fresh and healthy options. But incentives for eating healthy products could nudge SNAP participants away from refined grains and towards fruits and leafy greens.
Policy experiments both in the U.S. and internationally have shown this to be an effective incentive system. For instance, a South African program that gave 260,000 households up to a 25 percent rebate on healthy food purchases led beneficiaries to eat about one-half more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Rebate recipients were also more likely to eat three or more servings of wholegrain foods per day and less likely to eat foods high in sugar, salt, fried foods, processed meats, and fast food. And a domestic experiment launched in 2011, the U.S. Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), gave SNAP recipients a similar 30 percent discount on healthy food. HIP participants ended up eating 25 percent more vegetables with their benefits, and a staggering 95 percent of beneficiaries said they wanted to program to continue.
These food incentives don’t just make for good policy in theory. SNAP recipients told the Harvard researchers that they would support these kind of incentives.
SNAP recipients also indicated they would support more punitive policies, like junk food limits or mandatory nutritional education requirements for people on the program. But one major problem with adjusting SNAP benefits by limiting access to unhealthy food is that many Americans who use food stamps don’t necessarily have access to healthier options.
Many of America’s poorest who rely on SNAP live in “food deserts” where there’s limited access to supermarkets and stores that carry fresh produce. In fact, the average SNAP beneficiary lives about 1.8 miles away from a grocery store and doesn’t own a car. That makes it far more likely that a food stamp recipient will rely on a bodega or mini-mart for food — facilities that tend to carry cheap and pre-processed, fat and salt-laden products.
The only way to permanently end food deserts is to encourage more farmer’s markets and supermarkets to open up stores in the low-income regions that currently need them. In the meantime, local projects like D.C. Central Kitchen in the District of Columbia work to deliver healthy foods at affordable prices to local corner stores.
Lawmakers could also choose to simply expand available SNAP benefits to encourage healthier eating. Automatic cuts mean that current recipients only have $1.40 per person per meal to pay for their food — a particularly difficult reality considering that SNAP usually makes up a family’s entire food budget, despite being designed as a supplemental program.