SNAP Judgment: Is Government Program Hazardous To Health?

March 11, 2014

The idea behind the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is simple: Poor people don’t have enough money to eat well, so the government gives them vouchers to buy more food.

Traditionally, SNAP’s critics have argued that it breeds dependency. But new research suggests it may actually be hazardous to your health.

“People on SNAP have even higher rates of obesity, hypertension, and pre-diabetes than people of similar income not on SNAP,” said Walter Willett, a nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In a series of studies, Willet and his colleagues have found that when people receive SNAP benefits, their health actually gets worse. This is a problem both because of the program’s vast scope — it serves about one in seven Americans — and its annual cost of roughly $80 billion.

“We would have hoped that this large an investment in food, and supposedly nutrition, that people on this program would be better off than people not on the program,” Willett says. “And it turned out to be, if anything, the opposite.”

That may be because low income people also tend to eat poorly — and then, when they receive SNAP benefits, to purchase even more low-nutrition foodstuffs. Fortunately, Willett says, there’s a solution.

“It’s very reasonable to have some limits on what SNAP resources can be spent on,” he said. “For example, limiting soda and other beverages, I think, is completely sensible.”

When then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to do that in New York, though, the federal government nixed the idea. Willett blames lobbying by the food industry — but there’s also opposition on the political left.

When I asked John Drew, the head of the antipoverty organization Action for Boston Community Development, about Willett’s proposed soda ban, his reaction was incredulous: “Is Coke poison?”

As Drew sees it, once the government starts limiting poor people’s diets, there’s no telling where it might stop.

“Should you drink coffee?” he asked. “Should you drink tea?Don’t do sugar, don’t do fat, don’t do salt!”

Drew believes that a host of factors shape SNAP recipients’ food choices, from a dearth of nearby supermarkets to limited food budgets — and that what look from the outside like dubious decisions actually have a persuasive logic of their own.

“They’re making other choices because they have to,” he explains. “You buy bulk, you buy frozen, maybe things that are a little more starchy. You want to fill the kids up.”

To be clear, Drew said he has no problem teaching low-income individuals how to eat healthy. ABCD does this every day in its citywide Head Start program — and Drew says it’s paying off, with obesity rates among ABCD’s Head Start participants dropping 40 percent in just a few years.

The difference, he says, is that teaching poor people to eat better is respectful — but banning certain products isn’t.

“We gotta give them dignity,” Drew said of SNAP recipients and other low-income individuals. “Let’s not get to point where we’re going to say, ‘We’re going to tell you how to live your life.’”

For what it’s worth, Willett believes that any reform of SNAP should also include an increased educational component. Allocating just one or two percent of SNAP’s budget for education would make a huge difference, he says. But he’s unsympathetic to the argument that product bans would limit freedom of choice in way that’s unacceptable.

“The problem is, of course, is that kids growing up in these homes are having their freedom of choice hugely limited because they’re developing obesity, getting diabetes as adolescents,” Willett said. “And for them, freedom of choice means many years shorter of life to live.”

Jenny Reynolds, a former SNAP recipient, and Charlie Chieppo, a research fellow at the Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, joined Greater Boston to talk about food assistance and health:

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