A RECENT study found that, in general, participation in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has a very modest effect on diet quality.
SNAP has two main goals: to reduce food insecurity and to help low-income recipients make better food decisions.
The Economic Research Service (ERS) study found that the diet quality of SNAP participants was comparable to non-participants in the same income bracket.
ERS examined Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores for adults in low-income households who participate and do not participate in SNAP, taking factors into account that could influence both SNAP participation and diet quality.
The index measures survey respondents' adherence to dietary guidance (as detailed in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) and is the primary tool the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses to monitor the diet quality of the U.S. population.
The total HEI score for SNAP participants was about 1.25 points (2.5%) lower than for similar non-participants (Figure). In terms of dietary components, this difference amounts to roughly a half-cup of fruit, two-thirds cup of vegetables or 1-1/3 oz. of whole-grain products.
Dr. Christian Gregory, author of the ERS report, noted that as a whole, SNAP participants eat less healthfully when it comes to fruits and vegetables, but they do consume less saturated fat and sodium than non-participants.
The ERS report explains that SNAP increases the likelihood that participants will consume whole fruit by 23% but also induces decreased intake of dark-green or orange vegetables by a modest amount — the equivalent of about 1 oz. in a 2,000-calorie diet.
These effects could be the result of both time constraints associated with SNAP's work requirements and extra income — i.e., people participating in SNAP may see whole fruit as more affordable with a little extra income, and they may consume more of it because it requires no preparation time. At the same time, dark-green or orange vegetables could be less attractive to SNAP participants because these foods may require more preparation time.
With nearly one in six U.S. residents living in households USDA classifies as either food insecure or having very low food security, identifying ways to increase the effectiveness of USDA's nutrition assistance is paramount.
USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services Kevin Concannon said the ERS report emphasizes that USDA needs to continue to build on its efforts not only to arm consumers with knowledge about healthier eating but also to influence behavior.
Concannon praised USDA's changes to the National School Lunch Program, noting that encouraging healthy eating from preschool to 12th grade for the 33 million students served in 99% of public schools and half of private schools will "really make a difference over time."
One suggestion given for increasing the effectiveness of SNAP is to limit recipients' food choices when they use their benefits. At present, SNAP benefits can be used to purchase any food or food product for home consumption (excluding alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot food and any food sold for on-premises consumption).
"I'm supportive of efforts to improve (food purchases), but I'm hesitant to start with SNAP participants," Concannon said, pointing to the finding that SNAP participants' eating patterns don't differ greatly from non-participants.
While 100 is a perfect HEI score, the average American's score is 55-56, showing that everyone falls short of adhering to the recommended dietary guidelines.
Concannon added that 82% of SNAP benefits are redeemed at supermarkets or large stores; the remaining 18% are redeemed at small stores that may not have the same depth or range of healthy foods.
Since domestic food assistance makes up more than 80% of farm bill funding, discussion of how money should be spent within the program will be an important component of the overall farm bill debate.
Early reports indicate that, during the House farm bill markup May 15, House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) plans to propose $20 billion in food stamp cuts, which is more than last year's proposal but may not be enough to satisfy budget hawks.