Diane M. Gibson is an associate professor and director of the New York Census Research Data Center at Baruch College.
Forty-two percent of low-income women in the United States are obese, and the rate of obesity is even higher among women who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly the food stamp program.
“More supermarkets in poor neighborhoods might not change people’s diets, if they only make more junk food available.”
Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether this is the result of receiving SNAP benefits or whether there is simply a correlation between obesity and SNAP participation that arises because the low-income women who are more likely to be obese are also those most interested in getting SNAP benefits. The research suggests that SNAP participation may actually cause an increase in the likelihood of obesity for low-income women. A relationship between SNAP participation and obesity has not been found for low-income men.
It is often assumed that increasing the availability of supermarkets in low-income areas will lead to more nutritious food choices and healthier weight status for SNAP participants. Although increasing the number of supermarkets in low-income areas would be expected to lower the price that low-income families pay for food, it is not clear that more supermarkets lead to better food choices or lower the rate of obesity among low-income individuals.
While supermarkets tend to stock more and better-quality fruits and vegetables than other types of stores, supermarkets also tend to have more shelf space devoted to “junk” food than other types of stores. More research is needed to understand the impact of the neighborhood food environment on food choices.
Possible ways to encourage SNAP recipients to consume fewer calories and improve diet quality include expanding the number of farmer’s markets where food stamp benefits are accepted, providing discounted produce for participants and not allowing certain types of food to be purchased with the benefits. A study is under way in Massachusetts looking at whether giving SNAP recipients a discount on produce leads to more nutritious food choices. It would have been interesting to see whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to prevent New York City’s SNAP participants from using their benefits to buy soda and other sugary drinks would have had an impact on the total calorie consumption and overall diet quality of the recipients.