Since the economic recession that began in late 2007, the dual crises of food insecurity and obesity have increased in America.
According to the results of a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 500 SNAP stakeholders from the public and private sectors, a majority of the respondents believe that current levels of SNAP benefits for many participants are inadequate, and that the nutritional quality of the program needs to be improved.
With a $76 billion Federal Budget, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as food stamps — currently provides more than 47 million Americans — approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population — with resources to purchase food. Almost half of the program's beneficiaries are children, one in two youth participate in the program before the age of 19, and 900,000 recipients are veterans.
"First and foremost, the current SNAP budget should be preserved — we cannot leave millions of Americans without this vital safety net," said Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A., Former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and Senior Fellow in Health Policy at the New America Foundation, who conducted the study with the Harvard School of Public Health and other partners. "The next priority is to strengthen nutrition in SNAP – the fact that 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure while two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese reveals a perilous American paradox that SNAP must address."
The recently released study, "Strategies to improve the dietary quality of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries: an assessment of stakeholder opinions" published in Public Health Nutrition identified three key barriers to improving the dietary quality of SNAP participants:
· Unhealthy foods marketed in low-income communities;
· The comparatively high cost of healthful foods; and
· Lifestyle challenges faced by low-income individuals and families
To incentivize the purchase of healthy foods with SNAP benefits, the majority of survey participants responded that food purchases should be consistent with recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Most respondents also agreed that the USDA should collect data about food purchases made with SNAP benefits to help evaluate whether certain products may be associated with obesity among recipients and to assess the effectiveness of policies and interventions aimed at strengthening nutrition in SNAP. The study's authors underscore: "aligning SNAP with national public health priorities is a matter of urgency to ensure a healthier future for low-income Americans."
Survey respondents expressed wide support for other new approaches to improve the nutritional status of SNAP recipients, including:
· Providing a variety of incentives for purchasing healthful foods;
· Requiring minimum standards for stocking healthy foods to be certified as a SNAP retailer;
· Updating SNAP-Ed nutrition education and messaging to be consistent with other federal nutrition assistance programs; and
· Using information technology and social media for nutrition education and outreach.
"This study could not be released at a more crucial time: the $5 billion boost in the SNAP budget (as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) ended on Oct. 31, 2013 and additional cuts to this vital program are now being debated in Congress," said Walter Willett, MD, Chair and Professor, Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the article. "The funding for this essential safety net must be maintained for low-income Americans."
To read the full study published in Public Health Nutrition, "Strategies to improve the dietary quality of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries: an assessment of stakeholder opinions" please visit: http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A903MZVR.