Government Food Programs Can Actually Help Poor Families Eat Healthier

Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and one of the report’s co-authors, said the healthiness of the WIC participants’ overall purchases came as a surprise to her.

“Everyone is talking about low-income households buying unhealthy food for the most part, but that’s not what we saw in our data,” Andreyeva told The Huffington Post.

Andreyeva noted that the improved healthiness of the WIC participants’ food and beverage purchases achieved through the 2009 tweaks came at no additional cost to the government — the changes were cost-neutral because the healthier products added to the program were offset by unhealthier products that were eliminated.

“It shows that change is possible. It improved dietary quality and it doesn’t have to cost extra,” Andreyeva added. “Smart tweaks of existing programs can make a big difference.”

Could a similar approach to reforming SNAP benefits help the program similarly nudge its 45.5 million participants toward making healthier purchases? (A 2015 study found SNAP participants were more likely to be obese, for a variety of factors not limited to the program, than the general population.) That question, it turns out, is pretty complicated.

WIC, of course, is quite a bit different than SNAP, even though both programs are administrated by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to provide nutrition assistance to low-income households and keep them out of poverty.

SNAP allows recipients, after an application process verifying that they meet income- and employment-related eligibility requirements, to purchase a wide range of food items sold at any retailer that participates in the program. SNAP recipients, quite simply, are far less limited in foods they can receive through the program than WIC users are.

SNAP is also a much larger and costlier program than WIC, costing $74 billion a year compared to WIC’s federal price tag of $6.2 billion in 2015.

But there is increasing evidence that a sort of “carrot-and-stick” approach to SNAP benefits could help recipients make healthier purchases.

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