This week, the House Appropriations Committee marked up a spending bill for the US Department of Agriculture and related agencies, which includes many of the nation’s largest safety net and nutrition programs—most notably, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Although much attention will focus on proposed spending cuts, one under-the-radar spending amendment proposed by House Republicans could serve as a springboard for improving the nutrition of millions of low-income Americans receiving SNAP.
Buried deep in Section 739 of the bill, Congress authorized $2 million for up to five pilot projects to improve the nutrition and health outcomes of SNAP participants. Specifically, the projects would “allow the use of [SNAP] benefits to purchase only nutrient-dense foods and beverages (as defined in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans).” This proposal—though the specific details of the pilot projects are to be determined—should be considered a welcome development given the poor health and nutritional outcomes of SNAP recipients. Although $2 million might not be enough to study fully these questions (for example, healthy incentive pilots received $20 million in the 2008 Farm Bill), it would be a good start.
Although Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds struggle with diet and nutritional challenges, our recent research shows that SNAP recipients are faring particularly poorly. On a variety of physical and mental health outcomes—including diet-related disease, obesity, self-reported health status, and feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness—SNAP participants exhibited worse outcomes than non-recipients (both high-income and low-income). Figure 1 shows the percentage of SNAP recipients who suffer from a diet-related disease compared to non-recipients.
Figure 1. Diet-Related Disease by SNAP Status and Age and Parent Profiles, 2014-2018
At every age and parent profile, SNAP recipients had substantially higher rates of diet-related disease (which includes diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or hypertension). In the most recent years of data, 65 percent of 50-64 year olds had been diagnosed with a diet-related disease, compared to just 57 percent and 44 percent of low- and high-income non-recipients, respectively.
Many other studies have documented similar results, including research from the USDA, which found that SNAP participants were significantly more likely to be obese than comparable nonparticipants. The same study found that SNAP participants tend to have unhealthier diets than other low-income households do; the researchers found that adults receiving SNAP consumed fewer fruits and vegetables, and more soda than income-eligible nonparticipants.
Some argue that the relatively unhealthy consumption habits of SNAP recipients are because healthier foods are much more expensive than cheap foods. The available research, however, suggests otherwise. When measured correctly, healthy foods turn out to be cheaper than unhealthy foods, often by a wide margin. Additionally, given that the above studies found substantial nutritional and health differences between SNAP recipients and low-income non-recipients, the poor health of SNAP participants is likely not attributable to the costs of a healthy diet.
An all-out ban on unhealthy foods in SNAP, similar to the approach in the National School Lunch Program and WIC, seems warranted considering these alarming statistics. Congress created SNAP to be a nutrition assistance program, not a cash transfer—meaning that any effort to promote the health and wellbeing of SNAP recipients is firmly within the purview of the program. However, opponents of blanket restrictions have argued that they would be too paternalistic or would penalize the poor. Other arguments against restrictions raise the possibility that SNAP recipients will simply use their own money to purchase unhealthy foods, lessening any potential impact of the policy. For these reasons, the House appropriations bill to fund pilot projects is a good compromise. At the very least, it could answer some of these important questions, such as whether restrictions could actually improve the nutrition and health of low-income Americans, without resulting in unintended consequences.
Given that living healthily confers a host of both monetary and nonmonetary benefits—such as the ability to work, improved mental health, and a generally happier life—policymakers have an opportunity through SNAP to substantially improve the lives of low-income Americans. In the short-term, the House proposal for pilot projects might not address fully the problems facing SNAP participants, but it would address the question of whether restrictions can play a positive role in improving the health of SNAP participants. If the findings were positive, Congress could implement restrictions at scale. If restrictions failed to improve diet quality for SNAP participants, it would put to rest an important debate and redirect efforts toward more effective approaches.