Food Stamps Too Skimpy to Improve Food Security or Diet, Study Finds

Food Stamps Illinois
AP/M. Spencer GreenVolunteers at St. Ignatius Food Pantry bag items as individuals and families in need visit the facility in Chicago. Million of low-income Americans who receive food stamps just saw their benefits cut when temporary increase in food stamp dollars from the 2009 economic stimulus expired.
By Andrew M. Seaman

NEW YORK -- A program that provides food and nutrition assistance to millions of low-income Americans may not be effective at current funding levels, suggests a new study.

Researchers found people who received assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) fared no better than people in similar conditions who were not eligible or didn't enroll in the program.

"Our insights were maybe not surprising, but it's the first time something like this has been documented," Eric Rimm told Reuters Health.

Rimm is the study's senior author and an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

SNAP -- formerly known as food stamps -- is the largest U.S. food assistance program and reached approximately 45 million people in 2011, Rimm and his colleagues write in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. The program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

People on SNAP can use benefits to buy most food, but not alcohol, supplements or prepared meals.

Previous studies looking into whether SNAP improves people's access to food and diet quality have produced mixed results.

For their study, the researchers recruited 107 adults who called a hunger helpline in Massachusetts and applied for SNAP.

They then compared food access and diet quality among the 64 people who were able to enroll in the program and the 43 people who did not enroll.

They collected questionnaires from those people over three months in 2011.

The researchers found people's access to food -- or "food security" -- improved a bit among both groups. But neither group did particularly better than the other.

"It's a really tricky interpretation because obviously people who call the hunger helpline are probably at the absolute highest levels of desperation," Rimm said. "In some ways they don't have any way to go but up."

The quality of participants' diets was measured using a scale that compares what a given person eats to dietary guidelines. The scale has a maximum score of 87.5 and higher scores signify better diet quality.

At the start of the study, the diet quality of participants who ended up enrolling in SNAP was about 23, on average. That compared to a score of about 25 among those who did not enroll.

By the end of the study, the average score among both groups fell to about 22.

The researchers also found that people receiving SNAP benefits increased their consumption of refined grains like breads, pasta and rice by about one serving per day.

Those foods, they write, are linked to a higher risk of diabetes.

"I think what it suggests is in its current form, SNAP assistance that is unstructured food assistance -- giving people money to buy any food item -- at this level does not improve their diets," Anne Barnhill said.

Barnhill was not involved with the new study. She is an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

She said it could be that restricting people's purchases would nudge them toward healthier foods. Or it's possible healthier foods are more expensive and higher benefits would allow SNAP beneficiaries to buy better foods.

In the study, about 86 percent of participants thought incentives to buy healthier foods and access to more cooking and education classes would help people covered by SNAP eat better.

Also, 59 percent of participants said restricting access to certain foods -- such as soda -- would help them improve their diets.

"They are looking for help," Rimm said.

Barnhill said the study also shows the current funding levels for SNAP are still too low.

"It's not to say they don't help," she told Reuters Health. "It's just that people receiving SNAP assistance still can't afford food."

The maximum amount a person or family can receive in food stamps dropped on November 1 after a temporary increase that was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A single person can now receive a maximum of $189 in benefits per month, down from $200.

Cuts to the program are being debated in the Senate and House of Representatives.

"I think it's time for the USDA to really take this program on and really think about how to make this a really useful resource to guide people toward healthier living," Rimm said.

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The company I worked for folded in March of 2012. I'm 43 years old with only a high school diploma and regular job skills. I live in a rural area. I received unemployment for 1 and 1/2 years. I counted a total of 250 job applications, went to 42 interviews and followed up on each and every job application as I put them in each week with personal visits and resumes. I went through a three month long process of OJT with our local Career offices - nothing. They can't send me back to school for any careers that are in this area - I would have to move to find a job in a new career. There are no other companies like the one I worked for wihin 200 miles & I'm out of money - unable to move to a new job market and now my vehicle is breaking down and I can't drive it very far. I'm essentially unemployable in this area, due to the young population taking all the service & medical jobs. So here I am, my husband is the only one working, we are about to lose our home due to lack of ability to pay our mortgage in full each month and were forced to apply for food stamps. We get $155/month until February. I'm lucky & my good friend paid for my way into real estate school and I'm scheduled to take my State exam in a month or so, so the food stamps are very helpful to get us through. $155 for two people IS plenty! It's called eating healthy, folks. I go to a local produce mart that accepts the EBT card and I walk away with a week's worth of breakfasts, lunch and dinner AND desserts for myself and my husband for $30 in fruits & vegetables, Then I spend another $15 at the natural food store for almond milk, oatmeal and a variety of beans. Lentils make a great protein-rich burger & garbanzos and garlic are great for home made hummus. I even buy a bag of raw peanuts for $3.50 and make my own peanut butter in the food processor and it lasts for a month or two. I use the oatmeal by grinding it with my coffee grinder into flour for pancakes & oatbreads. Once a month I purchase some chicken breasts for around $20 that last all month long, because we don't eat meat every night, just once a week. Large bags of wild-caught Tilapia costs only $10 at Walmart and their wild-caught salmon is only $5 for four 3 oz. portions. One of the months, I will purchase a large sirloin tip for $40, as my husband enjoys red meat sometimes. The grocer cuts the tip into about 8 1/2 steaks that are so big, I can use them for two meals, and the end of the tip he grinds into three pounds of ground sirloin. So now we have lean hamburgers if he wants on the fire out back. If society wasn't so SPOILED with frozen foods and 'snacks' - one can find plenty of ways to stay healthy & live within a food budget. During this time, my friend & I are getting free mulch & manure from the city and the local humane society and we are growing our own fruits and veggies to put up in canning. So I don't believe any of this BS about Food Stamps not being 'enough' to eat healthy. Stop being spoiled, America!

December 04 2013 at 7:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

we have lost the stigma of begging the government for help. Get a job, get two or three and work your way out. Millions of people have done it, are doing it and will do it. For a half century we continue to give help and the poverty level has stayed the same as it was percentage wise since before the help. That is not improvement.

November 27 2013 at 12:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Raymond Cox-Bey

obviously you can only see the crack deals. There are people who really need the stamps for their children and elders. I see you are able to recall GOP talking points and you must be independently wealthy. Why knock the poor. Never been there HUH?

November 27 2013 at 11:10 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Raymond Cox-Bey's comment

You need a job not welfare you need jobs not a healthcare monopoly

November 27 2013 at 11:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Just think how much better off food stamp recipients would be were it not for a greedy POS like Raymond refusing to buy these people food.

November 27 2013 at 11:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Time out

I dont know how many times Ive been in a grocery store , to see stamps being used on junk food. Stamps being traded for money to purchase crack. Obama promotes the welfare roll, tells immigrants , " we have programs to help you ' How about you pay for it Barry! . Enough of this bs!

November 27 2013 at 10:56 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Dave &/or Trisha

One may not be able to get a proper level of nutrition from "food stamps," but it seems a lot of folks are able to get enough dope, alcohol, money, etc., from them. Too much fraud and not enough gov't oversight. After all, it's just tax dollars...plenty more where that came from, right?

November 27 2013 at 10:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Want to add benefits. Clean up the mess you have now.
Many undeserving are on the public dole.
Clean out the abuse and there will be plenty

November 27 2013 at 10:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Robert's comment
Raymond Cox-Bey

What are you doing to help clean up the so called mess? Its easy to make comments from the comfort of your castle.

November 27 2013 at 11:12 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Two Republican reasons why food stamps don't work................They keep unproductive people alive and secondly they keep unproductive people alive! Welcome to Nazi Germany, America!

November 27 2013 at 10:45 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to boowah's comment
Raymond Cox-Bey

Go Boowah!!!

November 27 2013 at 11:13 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Raymond Cox-Bey's comment

Back to venezuela

November 27 2013 at 12:49 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down

Firstly, they confiscate the fruits of labor from generous Americans, thereby reducing the available amount of charitable resources, while circumventing civil society by inserting a knuckle-dragging mouth-breather between donor and recipient.

One reason dumbest 1%ers like boowah love food stamps...............staggering stupidity.

Welcome to Cuba, America!

November 27 2013 at 12:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

pdblitz what large commercial enterprise do you work for? welfare queens? really no one on welfare is a queen and those that are heavy are so because snap benefits are so low that they buy processed foods that are full of fat and calories but little nutrition! and sorry but the Wlamart workers I know would love to have a good job with good benefits and don't want to be on the government programs but because it is all or nothing thanks to Reagan most would need to double their pay or forfeit benefits that help their lives to just barely function! after all 1.oo more an hour does not pay all the rent but one loses all of the rent subsities, or 1.00 more an hour does not pay for health care but one loses all of the medicaid benefits sometime the details matter more that the ranting

November 27 2013 at 10:27 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to hardingoffice's comment
Raymond Cox-Bey

Truth doesn't change does it?

November 27 2013 at 11:15 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

An excellent unintentional example of the perverse incentives inherent in the failed welfare state.

Thank you for your cartoonish oblivion...........................I guess.

November 27 2013 at 12:49 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I could never understand why Food Stamps do not let their recipients bay some essentials such as toilet paper and soap.

November 27 2013 at 10:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to JOSEPH's comment

Most of those loosers don't know what those items are used for anyway.

November 27 2013 at 11:23 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

How can this possibly be true????A single person getting $189 in food stamps vs a single person getting nothing has no impact???Only in Pennsylvania where the snotty state employees refuse to interview you and the snotty governor refuses to make them.

November 27 2013 at 9:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply