How Restricting Food Stamp Choices Can Fight Obesity

We have selected this article from the September 27 Wall Street Journal as a follow-up to an earlier article we featured on May 7, “American Hunger,” from the Washington Post. Food stamps are vital currency for those who have nothing and yet, because of their limitation, we may be forcing them into a diet that leads to diabetes. Does our government have the right to restrict for their own good what they can buy? Or, we ask, might we not increase the amount of their food stamp allotment and allow them to choose a more healthy diet? Read the earlier article to understand the dilemma.

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Often, when people discuss the obesity crisis in the United States, and another failed effort to help people change their eating habits, it’s as if there’s nothing we can do.

But sometimes it’s actually more that there’s nothing we will do. There’s a difference.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps, provides aid to poor families in the United States so that they can buy food. More than 44 million Americans are in the program, with the average household receiving about $255 a month.

Oddly, food insecurity is linked to obesity. This could be because calorie-dense food is cheaper than nutrient-dense food, so poor people find it harder to eat healthfully. Simply providing money for food won’t change this. In studies, people who receive SNAP tend to be more obese than those who don’t.

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This has led some to call for a reduction in benefits, arguing that the program is causing obesity. It’s more likely that we need to change the behavioral economics of food, not the aid we supply. . .

The good news is that there seems to be something we can do about obesity. The bad news is that we probably won’t do it.

There have been many, many, many calls for the food stamp program to promote more healthful diets. Many states have requested waivers allowing for restrictions on what benefits can buy (some items, like alcohol, tobacco and household supplies, are already prohibited). Further restrictions have been rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program.

Its reasons for doing so are not hard to understand. The U.S.D.A. harbors legitimate concerns that such restrictions could increase the stigma and embarrassment already associated with food stamps, driving away potential beneficiaries, some of whom are children. The agriculture department favors incentives, rather than exclusions, though this research shows incentives alone don’t seem to work. Most important, the department may be concerned that such changes would unfairly target poor people.

That concern is not entirely unreasonable. Sometimes the people calling for restrictions on food stamp purchases are the same people trying to reduce benefits over all. Such calls are often also fueled by anecdotal accounts of people who abuse the program to buy luxury items like lobster, filet mignon and crab legs. When we move beyond anecdotes, data show that food stamp recipients are not favoring shellfish or steaks over ground beef.

But not all pushes come from those who seek to punish the poor. New York City, which tried to limit soft drink sales for everyone, also asked the U.S.D.A. for permission to restrict purchases of sugary beverages from food stamps as part of a two-year experiment and was denied.

The department’s concerns seem odd when we look at other federal programs. The program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides food to poor women during and after pregnancy and to their infants and children. That program’s restrictions on food are quite thorough. The national school lunch program helps provide meals to more than 31 million children each school day. The regulations that govern what’s allowed under that program are complex and vast.

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The authors of the new study say that this is the first experiment to look at whether restricting certain foods on SNAP might lead to better health. It might be worthwhile for the Department of Agriculture to extend the experiment a bit more.

–by  Aaron E. Carroll

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