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Food Stamp Program Doesn't Guarantee Food Security, Study Finds

A sign in a New York City market window advertises the acceptance of food stamps.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
A sign in a New York City market window advertises the acceptance of food stamps.

Just as the food stamp program has been hit with funding cuts, a small study out of Harvard has found that the program isn't doing enough to ensure that its participants get a complete and nutritious diet.

The researchers wanted to find out how much the benefits provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a critical source of food aid for 47 million needy Americans, improved individuals' food security.

So they sampled 107 people who called into a Massachusetts hunger hotline. About 60 percent got SNAP benefits while the remaining 40 percent didn't. After three months, the researchers found that although both groups saw a slight increase in food security, the people in SNAP weren't doing much better than those who weren't in SNAP.

"This is the first time that someone has tried to track individuals as they went from not being on to going onto SNAP to look at the impact," says one of the researchers, Eric Rimm, a nutritional epidemiologist at Harvard's School of Public Health. While SNAP "is doing some of what it's intended to do," Rimm tells The Salt, "I just don't think it's doing enough."

One clear sign that people were struggling is that they were calling into a hunger hotline. "It got to a point where they needed to call for help," Rimm says. "It would be hard to get worse, because they really were in a very serious stressful condition."

To assess the participants' food security, the researchers asked them a standard set of questions developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They looked at how often participants had to cut down the size of the meals or go without food altogether.

Overall, Rimm says, "individuals on SNAP have a pretty bad diet" — in terms of both quantity and quality.

Rimm says that since SNAP participants receive all their benefits at the beginning of the month, they tend to spend it all at once on processed, bulk items like soda and refined grains. They're less likely to pick up fruits, veggies and other fresh foods because of their short shelf lives, Rimm says.

As for why they often run out of food, Rimm says it's pretty hard to properly ration to make it last all month.

This study, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, is by no means definitive. The number of participants the researchers looked at was fairly small and they weren't randomized. But Rimm says it does show that there's work to be done. "We should really think about how to administer this program," Rimm says.

Rimm says the main takeaway is that SNAP participants should get more guidance about what to buy and how to maximize their food stamp dollars so they last all month.

One idea that's being tested out across the country is to double the value of food stamp dollars spent on fresh produce.

And he says that more, bigger studies about how exactly the program does and doesn't increase food security would help.

But even with its flaws, Rimm argues that the program is an essential resource for the neediest Americans. "It would be disastrous to get rid of the SNAP program," he says. "And I think it's even disastrous to reduce the benefits of SNAP."

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