Stop Spending Government Funds to Promote Obesity

Stop Spending Government Funds to Promote Obesity
Walt Willett
Chair, Department of Nutrition

The obesity epidemic has huge economic consequences, and we have not even begun to pay the full cost. There is a generation of children today who have diabetes or prediabetes, and they are just coming to the age when they will start developing heart disease and kidney failure, and need amputations as well as treatment for sight loss. These conditions will cause enormous costs in the future, even if we arrest obesity at the present levels.

The federal SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called “food stamps”) allows recipients to use SNAP dollars for any kind of food. As a result, SNAP serves as a funnel for nearly $80 billion a year of taxpayer money to the junk food industry. This industry produces the foods most readily available in low-income neighborhoods—a lot of soda and lower-cost foods loaded with calories and refined starches. People on the SNAP program are more obese, have more metabolic syndrome, and have more cardiac risk factors than people not on SNAP, adjusted for income. And their health care costs will be higher, which ends up costing taxpayers even more.

All we have to do to fix this is apply the same criteria, or similar criteria, to SNAP purchases that we already have for the federal WIC program (Women, Infants and Children program), which essentially allows purchases only for healthy foods. That policy would cost virtually nothing, but it would transform the food supply and dramatically improve the health and wellbeing of SNAP recipients. Little stores and bodegas that only stock junk now would start carrying healthy foods, the cost would come down because of the greater volume of healthy alternatives, and these foods would also become available for those not receiving SNAP benefits.

We are talking about doing something that is cost neutral but would produce not just better health, but also economic benefits in the medium and long term. How? If you change what people eat—and perhaps return physical education to our nation’s schools at the same time—within months, children’s weight and incidence of diabetes will go down. Their parents’ weight will decline as well. Within a year or two, there will be important medical cost savings. Long-term health costs will decline as fewer people develop diabetes, and the cost of healthy food will drop for all of us.