Thousands of Utah residents benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as Food Stamps. Low and no income families are provided a debit card to purchases food, which sustains life and prevents hunger.
However, while participant’s wallets are being spared by SNAP, the program may pose a serious threat to their health. At least according to Harvard researchers who published their findings in the January 2012 edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
During the cross-sectional analysis of data from the 2003-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, researchers identified associations between participation in the SNAP program and significant health risks among 2250 non-elderly, low-income adults.
What researchers found was that participants in the SNAP program are 58 percent more likely to be obese, with men 104 percent and women 195 percent more likely to have large waists, independent of sociodemographic characteristics.
It is well known that obesity, particularly abdominal obesity, is associated with increased risk of diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, fatty liver disease and premature death.
Elevated fasting glucose, escalated triglycerides and metabolic syndrome were more prevalent among SNAP participants as well.
Metabolic syndrome, or Syndrome X, is a name for a group of co-occurring risk factors that increase your risk of coronary artery disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
The study authors concluded that the health risks associated with SNAP participants “may be mediated by dietary intake.” Meaning, changes in diet can reduce the health risks.
Regrettably, SNAP participants are not required to receive guidance or instructions about selecting healthy food choices. Instead they are given an 800 number they can call to receive optional nutrition information.
In fact, extremely few regulations exist to restrict what foods participants’ purchase through the SNAP program. Not managing food choices allows participants to load up on sugary drinks, artery-clogging meats and processed foods that promote the health risks.
Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a plan to ban the purchase of soda with food stamps, in an effort to fight obesity and poor nutrition in the city.
The proposal was rejected by federal officials, which led New York City’s health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley to state the move “really calls into question how serious the U.S.D.A. is about addressing the nation’s most serious nutritional problem.”
Another food assistance program targeted to low-income women, infants and children, Women, Children and Infants (WIC), does limit purchases with through the program to a list of nutritious foods. Additionally, it is mandatory that WIC participants receive nutrition education and counseling and they are referred to other service providers for health screenings.
The SNAP program could learn a lot from the WIC program. If the SNAP program adopted WIC policies, the fight against obesity and its related health conditions would receive a sizeable shot in the arm.
A high number of SNAP participants also receive Medicaid or Medicare, making the poor management of the SNAP program by the U.S.D.A. a double blow. As SNAP participants grow more obese and experience the associated health conditions, the costs to overtaxed government medical programs increases.
Government leaders, healthcare professionals and citizens need to seriously consider an overhaul to the SNAP program. Failure to do so will continue to place the health and lives of the 46 million Americans who currently receive food stamps at risk.