August 20, 2009

Food Stamps Use Linked to Weight Gain

Given my recent post on obesity, I thought that Science Daily’s recent article on the links between obesity and food stamp use was especially enlightening.

According to a recent nationwide study, people -- especially women -- who use food stamps also tend to have higher weight gain. The average food stamp user had a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 1.15 points higher than non-users, and women averaged 1.24 points higher.

A large part of the reason is that people receiving food stamps are also probably not purchasing healthy foods. When I brought the matter up, Bread for the City’s Intake Coordinator Sherita Evans made a good point about this: “There are a number of “Good quality” grocery stores in the area, but they do not advertise that EBT is accepted," she said. "These establishments are known for having a better quality and selection of food, but individuals will not frequent these stores because they think they can’t shop there."

For example: Harris Teeter, a fresh foods market, accepts EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) but it is not explicitly advertised in their store or on their website. Given the stigma that is already placed upon food stamps, many recipients shy away from these stores. If grocery stores were required to properly disclose that they accept food stamps, use of food stamps at stores with healthy foods would almost certainly increase.

But the more fundamental problem is cost. The average food stamp recipient receives $81 in food stamps per month. On $20 a week, fruits and vegetables -- to say nothing of things like healthy grains -- are way above these recipients’ price ranges. When a Giant Brown Rice Bag costs $2.00 but there's a $0.85 Giant Macaroni and Cheese box sitting on the shelf next to it, the "healthy choice" is a truly difficult one.

It is worth noting, however, that several initiatives have been made to increase the flow of healthy food to low-income residents. Most notably, DC's FreshFarms Markets has a new program that doubles the value of food stamps when used to purchase produce at their farmers' markets. More promising still is the Food Stamp Expansion Act of 2009, which has significantly expanded the eligibility for and amount of food assistance in DC.

Though these intiatives have helped tremendously, they are just small steps in the right direction. As rates of obesity increase, we must consider that people's inability to purchase nutritious foods leads to all kinds of even more costly problems. So where do we go from here?

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