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Can food stamps help lighten America’s obesity epidemic?

shopping_12from SNAPIn a recent article in New Scientist, Peter Aldhous discussed several issues related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. Noting that “because junk food is cheaper than fruit and vegetables, poverty and obesity tend to go hand-in-hand,” he offered several ways in which the program could be used to lower obesity and malnutrition rates among food stamp users. Here are some examples of the “economic carrots and sticks” he mentions in his piece:

One simple idea is to give the benefits every two weeks, rather than monthly. This would smooth out a cycle in which people load up on high-calorie food when the payments come in, then go hungry towards the end of the month – a pattern known to cause weight gain…

But most attention is focused on efforts to provide incentives to buy fruit and vegetables, or restrict purchases of junk food. A pilot project delivered promising results last month. Over 14 months to December 2012, 7500 households receiving food stamps in Hampden, Massachusetts, were given an extra 30 cents for every dollar spent on fruit and vegetables. Surveys run four to six months into the study show that their consumption of fruit and vegetables was 25 per cent higher than for people on regular food stamps.

Sanjay Basu of Stanford University in California has studied how changes in food prices affect what people put in their shopping baskets. His work suggests that banning food-stamp purchases of unhealthy foods, or increasing their price, should be even more effective…

If the food stamp program could be used to improve the diet of food stamp users, Aldhause writes, it could pave the way “for using taxes and subsidies to nudge the nation as a whole towards a healthier relationship with food.”

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: More evidence that boosting Americans’ physical activity alone won’t solve the obesity epidemicLucile Packard joins forces with Ravenswood School District to feed families during the summer breakFood stamps and sodas: Stanford pediatrician weighs inFood stamp use shows scope of child poverty and Denmark’s “fat tax” aims at life expectancy – not just waistlines
Photo by United States Department of Agriculture

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