The country is in the midst of a public health crisis. Two-thirds of adults and a third of all kids in the US are overweight or obese. Although no single factor is responsible for the nation’s weight gain, soda seems to be at least partly to blame. A decades-long study published earlier this month found that soda consumption amplifies the risk of obesity in people genetically predisposed to gaining weight. And a multitude of other studies suggest a link between soda and obesity.
From a nutritional perspective, soda is evil. We can all agree on that, right? It’s nothing more than delicious flavored sugar water—perfect if you’re a hummingbird, but awful if you’re a modern-day human surrounded by calorie-laden foods.
So it seems counterintuitive that the government program aimed at putting healthy food in the homes of low-income individuals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has almost no limits on what foods its 47 million participants can and can’t buy. Doritos, ice cream, pop tarts, even soda are fair game. Some participants undoubtedly make wise choices. Others don’t.
A study published in this month’s issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that few low-income individuals get the recommended amounts of whole grains, fish, fruit, and veggies. But SNAP participants had worse diets than other low-income families. Program participants consumed 39% fewer whole grains and 46% more red meat. Women in SNAP consumed 61% more sugar-sweetened beverages. “Although the diets of all low-income adults need major improvement,” the authors conclude, “SNAP participants in particular had lower-quality diets than did income-eligible nonparticipants.” A study published last year found that obesity was 30% higher among SNAP participants in California than among low-income people who do not participate. Even the USDA, which oversees SNAP, admitted in a 2008 report that among young and middle-aged women “multiple studies show a link between food stamp receipt and elevated BMI [body mass index] and obesity.” [pdf] In that same report, however, the agency argues that “not enough is known about the causal mechanisms of food stamp participation and weight gain . . . to make policy recommendations.”
The research does seem scanty. For example, it would be nice to know exactly what SNAP participants are buying with their food stamps. But the USDA doesn’t appear to be tracking that. “We don’t have the information because there are huge economic interests who prefer this information to remain secret,” Michele Simon of the watchdog group Eat Drink Politics told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s convenient for USDA to say that we are not authorized to collect information on what people buy with food stamps, but the truth of it is that Wal-Mart knows exactly how much was spent on what.”
Studies that examine the impact of potential SNAP food restrictions aren’t easy to conduct either. In 2010, New York officials proposed a two-year pilot study to test whether prohibiting the use of food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened beverages would have an impact on obesity. “We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything else being proposed elsewhere in this country — and at little or no cost to taxpayers,” said Michael Bloomberg in a statement. Yet the USDA shot down the request.
And New York isn’t alone. According to a paper published last year, “California, Nebraska, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, and Texas have either requested such permission or urged Congress to grant states more flexibility to set standards for what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits.” These requests haven’t been granted either.
Even if the link between SNAP, junk food, and weight gain were solid, the USDA argues that it would be difficult to figure out which foods and drinks to ban. “It is not a simple task to draw a bright line between foods that contribute to a healthy diet and those that do not,” the agency points out in a 2007 report [pdf]. The devil, of course, is in the details. And those details would have to be sorted out by nutrition experts. (Would plain sugar be banned? Would candy bars? How about tortilla chips?)
Creating rules may be difficult, but surely it wouldn’t be impossible. The Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which provides select foods like milk and beans to low-income women with children, already has them. Each 100 grams of breakfast cereal, for instance, must have at least 28 milligrams of iron and not more than 21.2 grams of sugar. So Cheerios are in, Lucky Charms are out. Women who participate in the WIC program can still buy Lucky the Leprechaun’s magically delicious marshmallow-studded concoction. They just have to pay for it out of their own pockets.
Incentives are another way to influence people’s buying habits, of course. The USDA has already launched a pilot program to test whether cutting the cost of fruits and vegetables by nearly a third will prompt SNAP participants to buy more of these foods. But the agency has yet to examine the impact of restricting access to junk foods. Why not test both the carrot and the stick and let the evidence speak for itself?
Image courtesy of Susan Sermoneta on Flickr