11/26/2013 10:42 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Health Benefits

The time has come for Americans to gain a fresh perspective of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To do so, the first step is to clarify a few facts about the program. In 2012, 46.4 million people were enrolled in the program at a cost of 74.6 billion dollars. Of these 46.4 million people, 48% are children; around 22 million children depend on SNAP for nutrition. This is almost three times greater than the amount of children participating in the Special Supplemental Women Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program.

In 2008, the Food Stamps Program became known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a move which was done to remove the stigma from the program and to increase its focus on nutrition. According to the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, SNAP's primary aim is to alleviate hunger and to improve nutrition among low-income people in order to increase their health and welfare. Even though the mission of improved nutrition is now a stated goal, nothing has been done to reach this end point.

It is vital to begin thinking of SNAP benefits as health benefits. These nutrition goals and the fact that 22 million children rely on the program for food should guide the conversation about nutrition interventions. In addition to excluding alcohol, hot foods, and food meant to be eaten in a store, I feel sugar sweetened beverages (SSB) should be on the prohibited list. SSB beverages have been defined as any product that contains more than 10 calories per cup of added sugar, excluding fruit juice, without added sugar, milk products and milk substitutes. Limiting SSBs with SNAP benefits is not going to cure obesity or eliminate all diet-related diseases, but it is a great place to begin the transformation. SSBs do not support the mission of SNAP and do not alleviate hunger or improve the nutritional status of participants . A micro-simulation study, conducted by Stanford University, estimated that the restriction of SSBs would avert 52,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease in SNAP participants . An estimated 4 billion dollars is used to purchase SSBs , so the purchasing limitation ensures that participants will have more benefits to allocate to more nutritionally dense products.

This limitation is not in place to stigmatize participants or to imply that they are bad at making food choices, rather these restrictions will help the USDA meet its goal of providing a nutrient dense diet. WIC currently restricts products to nutrient dense foods with no public outcry. Why should SNAP not follow suit? The Dietary Guidelines For Americans, issued by the USDA, say to reduce sugar intake. It is incredibly hypocritical and contradictory that the largest food assistance program run by that same organization should enable the consumption of sugar water.

Along with a SSB limitation, it is also important to promote proper portioning of the meal plate, specifically the importance of having a half of a plate of fruits and vegetables. An article from the University of California-Davis demonstrated that a 40% subsidy could increase fruit and vegetable consumption by 17.4% , with SNAP participants. This study estimated the subsidy to cost $2.941 billion or $14.25 per participant per month; although this study incorporated starchy vegetables, which could be eliminated to lower overall cost as this item does not need incentivizing for consumption. The 40% subsidy would only amount to a 3.9% increase in total funding for the program. With programs like Medicaid and Medicare seeing increased spending from 1987 to 2006 due to a rise in lifestyle-related diseases including: diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease , the SSB limitation and subsidy may cost more at the beginning, but could save funds later. The adult per capita spending attributable to obesity was estimated at $1,723 for Medicare patients and $1,021 for Medicaid .

We need clear, strong public health messages that support impactful nutrition policy. We need to strive toward the underlying goals of SNAP to alleviate hunger and to improve nutrition in its participants. We need to shift the perception of SNAP to what it truly is - a vital component in the nutritional intake for 46.4 million Americans, including 22 million children in need of a nutrient dense diet. Eliminating harmful products and increasing healthy food availability are key to helping stop the continuous cycle of obesity in this country. Let us start practicing what we preach and begin emphasizing the importance of nutrition in SNAP.