Do Food Stamps Make Poor People Fat?

WASHINGTON -- Food stamps contribute significantly to an obesity problem in south Texas, according to a recent story in the Washington Post.

The piece, by reporter Eli Saslow, examines a Texas county in which 40 percent of residents receive nutrition assistance, meaning they eat cheap food, resulting in "rates of diabetes and obesity that double the national average," Saslow writes. His big question: "Has the massive growth of a government feeding program solved a problem, or created one?"

Researchers have also wondered whether the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fattens its 47 million enrollees, but they have not found overwhelming evidence that it does.

"In fact, a growing body of research suggests a protective effect of SNAP participation on obesity risk," the Food Research and Action Center, a liberal advocacy group opposed to cutting food stamps, found in a report, most recently updated in January, that cited more than a dozen separate research efforts.

One study, for example, found that poor people in Massachusetts receiving benefits for six months had lower body mass indexes than people receiving benefits for shorter periods of time. A study in New York City found food insecurity increased body mass only in women not receiving food assistance. (People can still be "food insecure," meaning they lack access to food at all times because of limited resources, even if they receive food stamps.) And a national study found that food-insecure adults over age 54 receiving benefits were less likely to be overweight than non-beneficiaries.

Several studies have found a correlation between SNAP participation and increased body mass among adult women, however. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2008 review of available research found that while use of food stamps didn't increase obesity among children, adult men, or the elderly, studies showed adult women were 2 to 5 percent more likely to become obese if they received food stamps for more than a year.

The Food Research and Action Center has said those studies are flawed, pointing out, among other things, that food insecurity among women in general is particularly associated with obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, low-income women are more likely to be overweight than their higher-income counterparts, while the opposite is true for men. Obesity is less common among both men and women who have college degrees.

Saslow's story focused on a diabetic mother of five in McAllen, Texas, named Blanca Salas, who has been receiving food stamps for nearly a decade. She says it's exhausting to try to find and cook healthy food in a landscape dotted with dollar stores and dollar menus and not much else.

"As her health worsened, she had started shopping mostly for foods she knew [her children] would eat and prepare themselves," Saslow wrote. "She was a single mother with little money and less energy, she reasoned; it was more important to provide enough than it was to worry about what, exactly, she was providing."

Congress is in the midst of a debate over whether to cut food stamps, with Republicans in the House of Representatives seeking to reduce enrollment by 3.8 million. Few have argued that the program's link to the nation's obesity problem, however murky, is a reason to reduce benefits. Rather, the focus has been on the cost of the program and concerns that it coddles lazy Americans who should be spending more hours on the job.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does run a program to fight obesity among SNAP recipients by promoting healthy food choices. Congress recently cut the program's budget by more than 25 percent and used the money to subsidize the dairy industry.

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