Do food stamps promote obesity?

August 19, 2009 by  
Filed under OBESITY

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weighing-scale-with-fruitObesity has become a major problem in the US as well as in many developed countries. And guess what? The U.S. Food Stamp Program seems to be a major contributor to the obesity problem. Obesity is measured in terms of Body Mass Index (BMI) and the average user of food stamps had a BMI which is 1.15 points higher than non-food stamp users.

A 14-year study by researchers at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Ohio Stae University strongly linked obesity to the use of food stamps. The strong correlation between food stamp use and excess weight, however, is only evident among women but not among men. Food stamp use not only promotes weight gain but hasten increase in BMI – e.g. the rate of weight gain in much faster. In addition, the longer a woman is in the Food Stamp Program, the more severe is the excess weight problem. Some more figures from the show that

  • Female food stamp users in general had an average BMI that was 1.24 points higher than those not in the program
  • White women’s BMI was 1.96 points higher than non-food stamp users
  • Black women’s BMI was 1.1 points higher than non-users

According to Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research,

“We can’t prove that the Food Stamp Program causes weight gain, but this study suggests a strong linkage. While food stamps may help fight hunger, they may have the unintended consequence of encouraging weight gain among women.”

The US Food Stamp Program was started in the 60s. It is currently known as the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and gives assistance to those with low-income or the unemployed. It is federally funded and administered through the US Department of Agriculture. In 2008, about 28 million Americans – about 1 out of 11 – benefited from food stamps on a given month.

So how can such a well-meaning program meant to benefit nutritionally become detrimental to the recipients’ health? The reason may be similar to the phenomenon of “recession obesity” wherein people tend to gain weight during lean times. This is because unhealthy food (high calorie, high fat, high processed) tend cheaper than fresh, healthy food.

According to 2002 government statistics, a stamp recipient received on average, $81 in food stamps. Clearly, it is difficult to make ends meet on such a tight budget, much less buy healthy, nutritious food stuffs that tend to be more expensive.

In order to fight obesity but without scrapping the program, Zagorsky proposed the following:

  • Policymakers should aim at changing the types of food that program participants purchase.
  • Food stamp recipients should be required to take a course on nutrition.
  • Recipients who purchase fresh produce and other low-fat products could be given more benefits or receive discounts on these products.

“Modifying the Food Stamp Program to include economic incentives to eat healthier might be an important tool for fighting obesity” he concludes.

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