POLITICS
10/13/2016 05:54 pm ET

Government Food Programs Can Actually Help Poor Families Eat Healthier

Food subsidies don't necessarily encourage bad eating habits.
Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The government’s nutrition assistance programs don’t tend to get a good rap.

The programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits typically referred to as “food stamps,” are often criticized by lawmakers and some nutritionists for allowing its low-income recipients to purchase unhealthy foods through the program.

Conservative leaders like Newt Gingrich and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump have pejoratively dubbed President Barack Obama the “food stamp president.” At the same time, some lawmakers have called for SNAP benefits to be cut dramatically.

But these criticisms often fail to acknowledge the growing evidence showing how SNAP and similar programs are already succeeding, or could be tweaked to address many of their critics’ concerns.

A paper published this month in the Preventive Medicine journal found that such a tweak to make the food packages offered to participants in the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, resulted in participants making healthier food and beverage purchases with their own money overall.

The report analyzed point-of-sale data obtained from a regional supermarket chain with stores in two New England states, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It found that the WIC program’s effort to make their food packages healthier in 2009 by adding fruit and vegetable vouchers, wholegrain bread and limiting milk purchases to skim or low-fat milk, rather than whole, had a clear impact.

The volume of healthy food purchases ― determined as such by following Department of Agriculture nutrition thresholds ― increased overall by 3.9 percent, while the volume of less healthy foods decreased by almost 2 percent, according to the researchers’ analysis. Most dramatically, the volume of less healthy beverage purchases — drinks including sugar-sweetened juices and whole-fat milk — decreased by 24.7 percent. Such changes were not observed in comparison low-income households that did not participate in WIC.

Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and one of the report’s co-authors, said the healthiness of the WIC participants’ overall purchases came as a surprise to her.

“Everyone is talking about low-income households buying unhealthy food for the most part, but that’s not what we saw in our data,” Andreyeva told The Huffington Post.

Andreyeva noted that the improved healthiness of the WIC participants’ food and beverage purchases achieved through the 2009 tweaks came at no additional cost to the government — the changes were cost-neutral because the healthier products added to the program were offset by unhealthier products that were eliminated.

“It shows that change is possible. It improved dietary quality and it doesn’t have to cost extra,” Andreyeva added. “Smart tweaks of existing programs can make a big difference.”

Could a similar approach to reforming SNAP benefits help the program similarly nudge its 45.5 million participants toward making healthier purchases? (A 2015 study found SNAP participants were more likely to be obese, for a variety of factors not limited to the program, than the general population.) That question, it turns out, is pretty complicated.

WIC, of course, is quite a bit different than SNAP, even though both programs are administrated by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to provide nutrition assistance to low-income households and keep them out of poverty.

SNAP allows recipients, after an application process verifying that they meet income- and employment-related eligibility requirements, to purchase a wide range of food items sold at any retailer that participates in the program. SNAP recipients, quite simply, are far less limited in foods they can receive through the program than WIC users are.

SNAP is also a much larger and costlier program than WIC, costing $74 billion a year compared to WIC’s federal price tag of $6.2 billion in 2015.

But there is increasing evidence that a sort of “carrot-and-stick” approach to SNAP benefits could help recipients make healthier purchases.

Another study published last month in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal compared the food and beverage purchases of some 279 participants in a 12-week experiment.

The participants were split into four groups: One group received a 30-percent incentive for purchasing fruits and vegetables, another was simply restricted from buying any candy, sugar-sweetened beverages or sweet baked goods with benefits. A third group received the incentive but was also subject to the same restrictions, while a final group was subject to neither incentives nor restrictions.

The study found that the group subject to both the incentives and restrictions made the healthiest choices out of all the groups. According to the analysis, this group reduced their intake of the unhealthy restricted items and increased their intake of fruit.

“The two things together are better than either one individually,” Lisa Harnack, University of Minnesota professor of epidemiology and community health and the study’s lead author, explained to Civil Eats, a food policy-focused news outlet.

Such an approach to SNAP would require congressional action to amend the federal law that governs the program.

While the evidence continues to mount that that may not be a terrible idea, Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of the book Appetite for Profits: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, believes the political reality of instituting such changes remains a key obstacle to progress.

These studies are not addressing the heart of the problem,” Simon told HuffPost by email.It’s silly to think we need more research on this. We need a political movement.

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Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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