Stamping Out Hunger and Obesity

Experts call for boosting Food Stamps nutrition to reduce food insecurity and obesity rates

SNAP to Health Report (snapt-to-health.jpg)Hunger and obesity have hit crisis levels in the U.S., and both epidemics disproportionally affect those with low incomes. A new expert report offers a roadmap for strengthening the $76 billion Food Stamps program so that it can tackle both challenges.

The Food Stamp program, renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008, gives low-income families and individuals electronic benefit cards that can be used to buy almost any food in the supermarket. Nationwide, 46 million people receive SNAP benefits, and enrollment is up 60 percent since the onset of the recession in 2008. Half of SNAP recipients are children. Yet unlike the National School Meal Program and other child-oriented federal food assistance programs, which must follow the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, no nutrition standards drive SNAP or guide what foods people can buy with SNAP benefits.

The SNAP to Health report, released by the non-partisan Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress on July 18, 2012, calls for transforming SNAP from a program that fights hunger into one that more broadly protects SNAP recipients’ health—and that doesn’t inadvertently feed the obesity epidemic.

“The time has come for a strategic, coordinated, public health-driven strategy for SNAP,” said Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, who was part of the expert panel that worked on SNAP to Health. “To not move in this direction is an enormous missed opportunity to meet two dire needs in this country, in one significant fell swoop.”

The 76-page report, perhaps the most comprehensive public health study of SNAP to date, comes at a precarious time for the program: Congress has proposed deep cuts in the SNAP budget as part of the massive 2012 Farm Bill reauthorization. Besides calling for the preservation of SNAP’s funding, the report’s key recommendations aim to realize the goal of renaming Food Stamps to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—namely, to safeguard SNAP recipients’ nutrition and health. Specific policy recommendations include the following:

  • Collect data on SNAP purchases to be able to monitor the program’s impact on nutrition, health, and the obesity epidemic.
  • Align SNAP with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by testing a set of integrated and innovative strategies to promote healthy eating.
  • Test healthy food guidelines for children, similar to Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which only allows benefits to be used for buying specific, nutritious foods.
  • Offer healthy food incentives that encourage SNAP recipients to buy—and stores to stock—fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Give states the leeway to test novel programs that would encourage the use of SNAP for healthy foods and discourage the use of SNAP for unhealthy foods, such as sugary drinks; New York City tried to pilot test a ban on the use of SNAP for sugary drinks in 2011 but the U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected its request.
  • Promote innovation across SNAP by creating a Center for Health and Nutrition Innovation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“When the Food Stamp Program was established in 1964, obesity affected only a small percentage of the U.S. population,” said Susan Blumenthal, former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. “Today, with 68 percent of Americans overweight, obesity is fueling a tsunami of chronic diseases that undermines our country’s health, economy and national security.”

The full report, along with other background information on SNAP and nutrition, is available on the SNAP to Health website.

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The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.