Do Food Stamps Make You Fat?

A new study suggests the answer is a cautious “yes”–at least, if you’re a woman. The researchers found that female food stamp recipients had a somewhat higher average BMI than non-recipients with similar social and economic characteristics. And the longer they were in the program, the higher their BMI.

This study is the latest in a growing and somewhat confusing body of research triggered by concerns about soaring obesity rates. And, like as not, it will fuel the highly politicized debate about how to reduce the rates and the equally politicized debate about nutrition assistance programs.

The problem is that we’ve got a link between food stamp program participation and overweight, but no explanation for it. Or rather, we’ve got a lot of diverse explanations and no research to tell us which, if any, is right. For example, is it that:

  • Food stamps encourage overeating because recipients will max them out, even if they don’t need to eat so much.
  • Families tend to run out of food stamps before the end of the month, so the moms go hungry and then overeat to compensate.
  • Food stamp recipients cope with the stresses of poverty by overeating.
  • Food stamp recipients don’t know how to eat healthfully and/or how to spend their food dollars wisely.
  • Food stamp benefits can be used for too many unhealthy choices.
  • Food stamp benefits are too low to cover the costs of a healthful diet–fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and lean meats, etc.

There’s probably some truth in all these explanations, except perhaps the first–a favorite of right wingers who don’t care much for government benefits of any sort.

But we can’t wait till we’ve got it all figured out. So what do we do based on what we know?

The co-author of the new study suggests that food stamp recipients could be required to take a course on nutrition. My heart sinks at the thought. Are we sure that poor people, unlike the rest of us, are so ignorant about what’s good for them and their families that they all need a course? Do we really want to erect a further barrier to participation–and risk even higher rates of child food insecurity?

The co-author also suggests that the food stamp program could be modified to encourage purchases of healthful products. This seems to me a whole lot more promising–and respectful–than imposing new requirements. Also, for the same reasons, better than restricting purchases to what we’ve decided poor people should eat.

We’re already seeing local efforts to promote using food stamps for fruit and vegetable purchases. For example, Wholesome Wave Foundation is sponsoring programs that double the value of food stamps used at farmers’ markets in eight communities, including Washington, D.C.  New York City’s health bucks program takes a somewhat similar approach.

But, as I’ve said before, these seem to me an inherently limited approach to a major public health problem. How many food stamp recipients live near a farmers’ market? How many farmers’ markets are open year round? How many sell products at prices competitive with major grocery stores?

Seems to me that if we want to help poor people eat more healthfully, then we’ve got to increase food stamp benefits and address the food deserts issue. In short, give poor people access to the resources that we who opine on obesity have.

Will those who need to shed the extra pounds? Well, maybe not. But are all the rest of us as svelte as we ought to be? Count me out.

One Response to Do Food Stamps Make You Fat?

  1. Howard Leibowitz says:

    A group I work with in Boston, The Food Project, has a similar program for food stamp recipients called “Boston Bounty Bucks”. It not only helps the recipient buy more food, it also serves as an incentive for farmers to bring their produce to the neighborhoods because they will sell twice as much food.

    With the Child Nutrition Act pending, it is important to consider support for community-based initiatives such as these. They are not a panacea, but they work.

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