Could Food Assistance Cause Obesity?   Leave a comment

Did you know that the US is one of the most obese nations in the world? It’s the only G-8 nation to crack the top 20 of the most overweight countries worldwide. A 2015 report commission by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the US “has the fattest kids by a wide margin and is tops in poor health for teenagers.”

Image result for image of snap programFor almost the entirety of human history, mankind has struggled to get enough to food to eat to meet a sufficient daily caloric intake. Today, low-income people are taking in too many calories and are much more likely to be overweight than people in the middle and upper classes.

 

We’re not supposed to talk about that. It’s considered impolite and impolitic. Bringing it up has trashed a few political careers. A few years ago British PM Anna Soubry, who served in the UK Department of Health, came under fire for observing that government policy and “an abundance of bad food” were causing an epidemic of fat children and low-income people in the UK.

“A third of our children leave primary school overweight or obese … When I go to my constituency, in fact when I walk around, you can almost now tell somebody’s background by their weight. Obviously, not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that’s where the propensity lies.”

Image result for image of snap program and obesityYeah, you can imagine the harangues she received. The US has a significantly higher percentage of its population who classify as obese than the UK, yet we seem even more reticent to acknowledge our obesity epidemic. When the problem is acknowledged, we’re often told that the way to alleviate the epidemic is through additional public spending, “such as raising the minimum wage or increasing earned-income tax credits.”

If the problem is that Americans are taking in too many calories, I fail to see how increasing the minimum wage or earned-income tax credits will address the problem. In fact, I wonder if public spending is partially fueling the US obesity epidemic.

The federal government oversees the nation’s $74 billion food stamp (or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise called SNAP). The program (under the Food Stamp Program name) was launched in 1964 after a three-year pilot program, but it went nationwide in 1974, at which point participation reached almost 14 million.

Interestingly, government data reveals this is almost precisely the same year America’s obesity levels began to increase, as the Bloomberg chart below illustrates.

Yes, we could be looking at a case of post hoc ergo proctor hoc, but it also could be that the government’s own policies are fueling the increase?

Government data show the typical American family on food stamps receives about $500 per month to spend on food, and as much as $771. That’s significantly more than my family of five spends on groceries per month.

I am a prudent shopper, but we live in Alaska, which has a 22 percent higher cost of living than the Lower 48 and food prices are higher by about 30 percent. We pay about $400 for groceries every month, and that includes more than just food. That’s including the dog’s food, laundry detergent and all those other household items you pick up at the supermarket, but that wouldn’t be covered by SNAP. (I can’t be bothered today to sit down and separate those items out).

So, $400 in a high-cost community, not all of it spent on food, but it’s on our own nickle or $500 a month on the governments dime?

Government data also shows that people on food stamps purchase soda (#1) and bag snacks (#4) at higher rates than non-SNAP households. It certainly seems possible that these unhealthy items are being purchased in larger quantities than they would absent food stamp income.

Now, there is an old argument that suggests that poor people eat unhealthy food because they cannot afford to eat healthy food. Having grown up in a working class family, I’ve always found that argument unpersuasive.

Related imageThe America Farm Bureau Federation says the price of eggs, arguably the healthiest food on the planet, is $1.32 (it’s $1.59 here in Fairbanks) per dozen. Other highly nutritious foods – beans, rice, and bananas, to name a few – are similarly inexpensive, which is why my working class family bought them a lot and why I still buy them for my middle-class family. So, if welfare recipients were trying to stretch food dollars, you would think they’d buy these low cost health foods. It seems more likely that most welfare recipients choose to eat unhealthy food because it’s easy (no prep), tastes good, and they have the resources to buy large quantities of it thanks to their monthly government benefit.

Since the US food assistance program went nationwide in 1974, the number of Americans collecting assistance has more than tripled, to 45 million today. The increase in food stamp assistance has tracked closely with the rise in obesity rates. While it’s unclear if there’s causation behind this correlation, it makes you go “hmmm” and then ask yourself, “Have federal food assistance policies contributed to the surge in obesity in the United States?

This thesis is not particularly original. I’m thinking with the Founding Fathers, actually. In 1766, in his tract On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor, Benjamin Franklin noted that public efforts to alleviate poverty often had perverse effects on the people they were intended to help:

“I am for doing good to the poor, but … I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed … that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer.”

I can’t think of many things that would make people “easier in their poverty” than a program like SNAP. If SNAP is contributing to the obesity epidemic, then our government is quite literally killing these people. Shouldn’t we want to study that to see if we can fix that?

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