Stamping Out Hunger and Obesity


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

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 healthand that doesnt 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 SNAPs funding, the report’s key recommendations aim to realize the goal of renaming Food Stamps to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programnamely, to safeguard SNAP recipients’ nutrition and health. Specific policy recommendations include the following:

  • Collect data on SNAP purchases to be able to monitor the programs 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 buyand stores to stockfruits, 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 countrys 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.