Research Article: In an unhealthy food system, what role should SNAP play?

Date Published: October 2, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Hilary Kessler Seligman, Sanjay Basu

Abstract: In a Perspective, Hilary Seligman and Sanjay Basu discuss future scenarios of food assistance programs to improve population health in a changing political environment.

Partial Text: We contend that any SNAP policy changes must be introduced and framed as part of a broader effort to address perversities of the US food system. Public health researchers must avoid promoting the idea that SNAP as a program or SNAP recipients themselves are a cause of the US epidemic of diet-sensitive chronic disease and health disparities, when the root cause is an unhealthy food system. Although diets of SNAP recipients are poorer than diets of non-SNAP recipients, differences are relatively small and may be attributable to unmeasured confounders. For example, point-of-sale data suggest that there are few major differences in expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, with about 40 cents of every food dollar spent on basic items (meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and bread) and 20 cents spent on junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages [6]. Sugar-sweetened beverages rank first in expenditures for SNAP households but second (just after milk) for non-SNAP households. Although added-sugar acquisitions are higher among SNAP participants than similar nonparticipants (31 tsp-eq versus 23 tsp-eq daily), overall diet quality as measured by the Healthy Eating Index is similar [7]. Studies correlating SNAP enrollment to obesity have been heavily publicized, but associations between SNAP and obesity disappear when adequately adjusting for unmeasured confounders [8]. In fact, many Americans—not just SNAP recipients—do not make healthy food choices in the current food system [9].

Policy changes must not negate SNAP’s far-reaching benefits. SNAP reduces food insecurity rates by 20%–30% [10]. Children born to mothers receiving SNAP are healthier at birth and less likely to develop the metabolic syndrome in adulthood compared with similar children born to mothers not receiving SNAP. Children receiving SNAP are also more likely to reach their full educational and cognitive potential and more likely to become economically self-sufficient [11]. Among adults, SNAP is associated with lower risk of chronic disease and lower healthcare expenditures [12]. SNAP has been associated with reduced recidivism among newly released prisoners [13]. SNAP dollars are also immediately reinvested into the US economy; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that every $1 billion in SNAP benefits results in $1.8 billion in economic activity and creates 8,900–17,900 full-time-equivalent jobs [14]. Finally, SNAP is by design responsive to changes in the US economy, supporting more households during economic downturns and fewer households during economic expansions. Hence, any policy modifications to SNAP must be rigorously studied not only for their impact on dietary intake but also for their impact on these important collateral benefits.

The large health benefits from modifying dietary intake through SNAP predicted in Mozaffarian and colleagues’ article indicate a need to explore the importance of programs similar to SNAP across all levels of government. SNAP is often the focus of public health research because it is a large, federal program, but this also makes SNAP a more difficult target for effective reform than local and state initiatives, which have often been subject to less legislative gridlock. Congress renegotiates the Farm Bill that funds SNAP every 5 years, and it is extremely unlikely that the bill currently under negotiation will substantially change allowable SNAP purchases (outside of pilot projects). Major changes are unlikely to be substantively debated again until about 2023. Meanwhile, numerous state and local policies and programs to support healthier dietary intake, particularly in low-income communities, are already being discussed, implemented, and expanded. These programs, including vouchers to support fruit and vegetable purchases, healthy food procurement policies, and workplace bans on sugar-sweetened beverage sales, have generally been underresearched.



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