By: Uzma Chowdhury
Today marks the first of February, and by now, most of our once spirited resolutions have fallen limply to the wayside. Our shiny, new planners lay hidden in the infinite abyss of our backpacks, our trips to the gym have been slowly replaced with Downton Abbey marathons and cookie dough; however, if you made a resolution to be healthier in 2013, you’re definitely not alone. With recent initiatives on affordable healthcare, greater emphasis on
real food revolutions, new programs supporting better nutrition, and even the First Lady’s campaign to end childhood obesity, 2013 is a year where the politics of nutrition has truly come to the forefront in attempting to develop a healthier America. These movements have largely been a response to our nation’s epidemic levels of obesity, which makes sense because 68.8% of adults in America are overweight or obese and obesity now affects 17% of all children and adolescents in the United States – triple the rate from just one generation ago. The pro-health movement attempts to bring national attention to the importance of healthy eating, regular exercise, and even food justice– the promotion of communities exercising their right to eat, grow, and sell healthy food that is locally grown, nutritious, sustainable and culturally appropriate. While concerns with obesity attempt to address the problems of the nation as a whole, startling statistics indicate that those at a higher risk of being food insecure or hungry are also those at the highest risks of suffering from obesity, especially those who benefit from federal policies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps.)
A 2010 study completed by the Harvard School of Public Health found that obesity rates among SNAP participants were 30% higher than among non-participants (when adjusted for socio-demographic characteristics, food insecurity, and participation in other programs.) Children living in poverty are 1.7 times as obese as their peers and studies also indicate that wages are inversely related to BMI and obesity—with lower wages come an increased likelihood of being obese, and as a result, SNAP participants are also at greater risks of suffering from obesity. Indeed, correlation does not imply causation, and while SNAP might not be entirely to blame for the health status of those who benefit from the program, the program certainly could improve its services by attempting to not only address food insecurity, but also real food education.
SNAP is, in fact, successful in addressing the issue of food insecurity, providing 50 million Americans with monthly benefits that supplement their meals, however it seems to do little to address the issue of healthy eating. The food that can be purchased under SNAP benefits includes healthy options such as fruits and vegetables, but also unhealthy options, such as soda. About four billion SNAP dollars are being spent on soda, one of the leading causes of obesity, and a product with no nutritional value. What this essentially means is that about four billion tax dollars are being used to promote obesity, a leading cause of five of the ten leading contributors of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease. When tax dollars are also spent on federal policies such as healthcare, it seems highly counter-productive that SNAP fails to promote healthy food choices. As pediatrician David Ludwig says, “It’s shocking how little we consider food quality in the management of chronic diseases. And in the case of SNAP that failure costs taxpayers twice: We pay once when low-income families buy junk foods and sugary beverages with SNAP benefits, and we pay a second time when poor diet quality inevitably increases the costs of health care in general, and Medicaid and Medicare in particular.”
So how do we improve the quality of food purchased by SNAP recipients? Nutrition writer, Mark Bittman, says the answer is easy: we must ensure that SNAP dollars are being spent on nutritious food. Not so fast, Mark. How do we ensure that SNAP dollars are being spent on nutritious food? Removing the subsidy for unhealthy foods poses a problem for those families who, for reasons of convenience, don’t have the time to prepare healthy meals or don’t have access to real food. So it must be made easier to purchase real food. Real food must be made more accessible and this accessibility must be enforced by federal policy. Bittman argues that if the spending power of food stamps is increased for fruits, vegetables and whole grains, more SNAP users would purchase real food instead of unhealthy, non-nutritious choices. However, one aspect of Bittman’s proposal falls short: real food takes preparation, it takes time, and it takes effort that many SNAP participants might not have. In removing the subsidies for unhealthy options, would there be a change in SNAP’s ability to combat food insecurity, its original and very important purpose? In drastically the status quo for SNAP policy, during a pressing budget crisis, the program might risk budget cuts and changes that lead to more harm than good. And even if policy forces real food on SNAP participants, removing the subsidy fails to take into account several other factors that promote obesity among SNAP participants including fewer opportunities for physical activity, cycles of food deprivation and overeating, high levels of stress, greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products and limited access to healthcare. Additionally, studies show that people will choose foods that contribute minimal nutritional value, even if those foods cost just a little bit more and but are better for your health because “eating habits are influenced by a wide variety of factors, including socio-economic and demographic characteristics, ethnic or familial traditions, convenience, advertising, and even biological triggers that make us more prone to eating foods high in sugar, salt, and fat.” Given all of these external factors that contribute to obesity amongst SNAP participants, what options does the USDA have in helping combat obesity through policy?
Of course, the broadest, most encompassing answer is education. For example, studies show that providing SNAP clients with a “suggested” budget for how to use their SNAP benefits, allocating certain amounts of money for certain foods, such as a pre-made shopping list that organizes the budget and allocates money for foods that will create nutritious meals for the greatest value, would allow SNAP users spend their money more wisely. Additionally, explanations for how and why the budget was created increase nutrition awareness amongst SNAP participants, allowing them to make their own healthy decisions without a list in due time. Also, distributing low-cost dishes with graphics that represent recommended portion size and recommended food groups can foster tangible education initiatives. Pilot programs incorporated into SNAP policy with an educational component could increase awareness of the importance of healthy food, portion control, exercise, and sustainable use of the SNAP budget. A small pilot project along these lines has been initiated in Massachusetts; however there are approximately 50 million SNAP participants in America today. That’s 50 million people at risk of obesity. These educational initiatives must become far more prolific for real change to occur.
The health movement has always existed on some level, but now more than ever, it is relevant to our nation in a way that it wasn’t before. The President’s healthcare reform bill is now law, and the American people have a much larger stake in public health. The existence of welfare programs such as SNAP have been an issue of debate for party politics, and while many still question whether or not such welfare programs should exist, the fact remains that they do, and as such, they should be as effective as possible in promoting better health. Reforming SNAP to include educational components deserves the attention of our legislators. With such reform we can imagine a society where children beg for fresh fruits and vegetables instead of resisting them, where adults spend more time creating nutritious dinners and less time choosing unwholesome fast food options—a society where we are, as a nation, are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of healthiness.