12:42pm

Tue September 11, 2012
Health and Welfare

Obesity and Food Stamps Have Close Correlation

"Who's getting fat off food stamps?" asks ABC News' Alan Farnham, reporting that a record number of Americans -- 46.7 million, or nearly 1 in 7 -- now uses the benefit, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It cost $72 billion last year, up from $30 billion four years earlier. Budget hawks have targeted the program's swollen size and cost, helping prevent passage of a new Farm Bill. Now Farnham reports, "There are those who say SNAP is making two different constituencies fat -- big corporations and the poor -- the first, figuratively; the second, literally."

In Kentucky -- with its extraordinarily high rate of obesity and, as of June 2012, its 406,689 households on food stamps -- the correlation between those two bears close scrutiny.  Many health advocates who are concerned about Americans' increasing obesity argue that "food stamp purchases should be disallowed for items high in salt or fat or sugar," Farnham notes. Consumer watchdog groups such as Eat Drink Politics similarly argue that food and beverage makers are making a mint from SNAP, and are spending equal portions to oppose legislation antithetical to their interests. Hard numbers about what the program buys are hard to come by, says the report, in part because the Department of Agriculture either doesn't have or does not release certain crucial data: "It lacks the legal authority, for example, to require retailers to report what products SNAP participants are purchasing. It knows the dollar value of transactions, but not whether the customer bought Cheesy Puffs or broccoli."

As for the increasing obesity of the poor, data on that problem are readily available, but food stamps' complicity in it is the subject of much debate. Julian Alston, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, has studied the question in depth. Alston and his co-authors conclude that food stamp participants are more likely than non-participants to be overweight or obese. Farnham writes that "they don't say food stamps are making them fat. The authors then go on to analyze whether the exclusion of certain food items from program eligibility might make participants healthier." (Read more)