Cutting Food Stamps Will Cost Everyone

The House opens debate Tuesday on a farm bill that would include unprecedented cuts to food assistance. With less money for quality food, though, comes more obesity, more sickness, and more overall cost.
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Carole Farina's grocery cart used to include heads of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers for homemade salads. Not anymore. Shopping at a Family Dollar store in Somerville, Massachusetts, the unemployed 47-year-old recently saw her monthly food stamp benefits reduced from $94 to $68 due to income adjustments from her disability payments. Now, Farina told me, she can only afford to buy "the cheapest stuff," like 5 for $1 instant ramen Cup Noodles -- those dorm-room staples made of refined carbohydrates, fat, sodium, and polysyllabic chemical additives.

Farina still occasionally splurges on cucumbers, but only when they are on sale for 2 for $1 at her local supermarket. Already overweight, she recognizes that her diet is unhealthy, but her diminished food budget portends a future of more Cup Noodles and fewer salads.

Like Farina, millions of food stamp recipients may soon see their monthly benefits trimmed and their nutrition compromised. But unlike Farina, these changes may occur regardless of changes in their personal income. That's because in two weeks the full House floor is slated to vote on the GOP-controlled Agriculture Committee's omnibus farm bill, which includes unprecedented cuts to the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Agriculture Committee's reductions to SNAP would total $20.5 billion over 10 years and is even more austere than last year's stalled House farm bill, which sought a $16 billion reduction to SNAP. Such draconian cuts to SNAP may exacerbate the obesity epidemic and ultimately raise health care costs associated with treating obesity and related conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, particularly among low-income Americans.

There will be even greater disparities in obesity rates across income levels.

According to the CDC, nearly 36 percent of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children are obese. High as these rates are, the proportion of obese Americans has finally plateaued in the last few years after having escalated since 1980. But obesity rates may climb again if the House Agriculture Committee's farm bill passes and results in benefit reductions for the 47.8 million Americans currently on SNAP. (An estimated 2 million households will lose their SNAP benefits altogether.)

SNAP recipients are already means-tested for poverty and scraping by on meager allowances. Under current eligibility guidelines, households qualifying for SNAP can earn no more than 130 percent of the poverty line, or $30,615 for a family of four. (Eighty-three percent of SNAP recipients earn less than 100 percent of the poverty line, or $23,550 for a household of four.) The U.S. Department of Agriculture's figures from 2012 indicate that monthly SNAP benefits average about $133 per person, or $4.43 per day. Had last year's House farm bill been enacted, half a million households would have seen their monthly SNAP benefits slashed by $90 per month, according to the hunger relief organization Feeding America. Given that this year's House farm bill calls for an additional $4 billion in cuts to SNAP, poor Americans would feel even greater hunger pangs if the Agriculture Committee's current farm bill passes.

Households affected by these SNAP cuts will have to contend with desperately tight grocery budgets that will constrain their ability to buy healthy food, making it easier for them to become obese. Having less money to spend on food could prompt SNAP recipients to buy more calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods that contribute to both weight gain and malnourishment. With the exception of a few items like beans and potatoes, many of the cheapest grocery offerings are highly processed foods packed with health advocates' maligned trinity of salt, sugar and fat.

Calorie for calorie, unhealthy processed foods and sodas are also often significantly more economical than healthier alternatives. In their widely cited survey of supermarket prices in Seattle, University of Washington epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski and his colleague S.E. Specter at UCLA found that one dollar bought 1200 calories worth of cookies or potato chips, but only 250 calories of carrots. For cash-strapped, hungry Americans, the choice seems obvious. And indeed, Drewnowski and Specter's research suggests that consumers on tight budgets decide what foods to buy based not on nutritional considerations, but on the cost and palatability of foods.

In spite of the challenges of eating healthfully on current SNAP allowances, it may still be possible to prepare relatively nutritious meals with scrupulous planning, culinary resourcefulness, and the type of fanatical frugality exhibited by "extreme couponers." The New York Times's Mark Bittman, for example, insists that simple home-prepared meals such as rice and beans are even cheaper than fast food. (Bittman, of course, presumes that working Americans have the time and energy to cook every day, and that they have endless appetites for Spartan dishes like rice and beans.)

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Chin Jou, PhD, is a lecturer in the history of science at Harvard University. Her forthcoming book is Origins of the American Obesity Epidemic:  A History of 'Bad Food' and the Federal Government.

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