United States: nutrition assistance does not prevent obesity

United States: nutrition assistance does not prevent obesity

August 31, 2018

United States: nutrition assistance does not prevent obesity

The financial aid provided by the national nutrition assistance program helps millions of Americans to make ends meet, but on its own it is not enough to ensure healthy dietary choices and combat obesity.

Better known by its old name of the “Food Stamp” scheme, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the USA's biggest nationwide nutrition assistance program, created to guarantee food security and fight malnutrition. Many studies, such as the one published early in 2018 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, underline the program's positives, but there is also no shortage of data that highlight a worrying increase in obesity and other health problems in families which receive the aid. 

A quick look at the program

The first US nutrition assistance programs date from the 1940s, and over the years down to the present they have undergone structural and budget changes while still retaining the name "Food Stamp", derived from the paper purchase vouchers, used in the last century, which enabled recipients to buy all the main basic necessities from food stores. After the first Food Stamp Act passed in 1964, a second document dated 1977 defined the new criteria for admission to the program, which, in 1984, introduced Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), a prepaid electronic card now adopted across the entire country.


In 2008 the Food Stamp Program officially changed its name to SNAP, the program running today, which helps more than 42 million low-income Americans to gain access to food. Once passed as eligible for the aid, people receive financial assistance which they may only use to  purchase food. Beer and alcoholic drinks in general, non-food products, meals eaten in stores or restaurants (with a a few exceptions), vitamins and medicinal products are automatically excluded.  

Benefits (or harm) for body and mind

In the final analysis, the nutrition assistance program only provides an average of 1.40 dollars per meal for each person involved in the project. An apparently negligible figure, but in actual fact it is capable of supporting the present and future health of the community, also considering that more than half the people involved are children, particularly vulnerable to the effects of diet on health. The data currently available show, for example, that the poorest children's academic performance depends on their families' ability to buy food, and what's more food security, meaning access to food, is vital for the smallest children's physical heath. 

However, the debate is still open on the link between the nutrition assistance program and the increase in overweight and obesity. A review of the literature published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has shown that in the USA, the people included in the SNAP program are the ones who eat the poorest quality diet; their calorie intake is similar to that of Americans not on the program, but in general their consumption of fruit, vegetables and wholemeal grains (paradoxically, more expensive than processed foods) is lower, while their added sugar intake is higher. And therefore their risk of obesity is also higher, also related to the fact that often people who cannot afford to buy healthy food also lack the time or skills to cook it. 

Education in better choices 

At present, the money received under the SNAP program can be used to buy anything defined as food, including the junk food that is so bad for health. This freedom of choice, combined with the lack of dietary and nutritional education often found amongst the poorest sections of the community, means that a project created to improve food security risks damaging health by increasing overweight and obesity. And this problem is by no means easy to solve. 

The ideal of restricting choices by prohibiting the purchase of some unhealthy foods has triggered a fierce debate between supporters of health and freedom of choice. Moreover, the sharp cuts in the program under consideration by the Trump administration risk erasing the benefits achieved so far. 

Nutritionists recommend a focus on dietary and lifestyle education programs such as SNAP-Ed, a United States Department of Agriculture program launched to teach the public how to transform their aid dollars into health. The project provides easily understandable informative material, and above all purchasing advice and recipes, designed for a low-income, poorly educated population.  The emphasis is placed mainly on the most at-risk categories: mothers, children and the elderly.

Associations like the Sustainable Food Trust are working to change the legislation, to allow the funds assigned with the SNAP to be spent at markets and producers, to simultaneously improve the quality and environmental sustainability of food.

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