The Government Accountability Office has analyzed the current status of food assistance programs in a recent report, "Domestic Food Assistance: Complex System Benefits Millions, but Additional Efforts Could Address Potential Inefficiency and Overlap among Smaller Programs" (GAO-10-346, April 15, 2010).

The GAO says the prevalence of food insecurity rose to nearly 15 percent of the population (or about 17 million households) in 2008, and that the federal government spent more than $62.5 billion on 18 different food and nutrition assistance programs that year.

Although the programs are poorly coordinated and often overlap, streamlining them is not easy and involves tradeoffs. The GAO recommends that the USDA

identify and develop methods for addressing potential inefficiencies among food assistance programs and reducing unnecessary overlap among the smaller programs while ensuring that those who are eligible receive the assistance they need. Approaches may include conducting a study; convening a group of experts ... considering which of the lesser-studied programs need further research; or piloting proposed changes.

More research needed!

Fortunately, we have some. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has studied the question of whether food insecurity is linked to obesity. Past research suggested that it is.

Foundation researchers reviewed studies examining a possible relationship between food insecurity and obesity, and those examining links between federal nutrition assistance programs and an increased risk of obesity.

Their report, "Food Insecurity and Risk for Obesity Among Children and Families: Is There a Relationship?" (PDF), finds no evidence of a direct relationship between food insecurity and obesity. It also does not find a direct relationship of use of food assistance to obesity.

Food insecurity is linked to a host of physical and mental health problems, and it is difficult to distinguish the effects of lack of reliable food from effects stemming from the lack of money, education, transportation, stable housing, and health care also common among low-income households.