Posted on Wed, August 12, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
1 Comments | Categories: Food Justice, Policy,
I love a good paradox, dont you? And sometimes I like to take mine with a side of situational irony.
A recent study appearing in this months journal of Economics and Human Biology as reported by Science Daily concludes that the US Food Stamp Program has actually been shown to contribute directly to weight gain. The studys researchers found that food stamp users had an average Body Mass Index (BMI) of 1.15 points higher than those not enrolled in the program. In laypersons terms this would be a weight gain of about 5.8 pounds. Also, the BMI of those studied tended to increase at faster rates, and the biggest weight gains were witnessed amongst female study participants.
Now the irony lies, of course, in the fact that the Food Stamp Program is meant to combat basic hunger by facilitating food consumption amongst sensitive populations. Would weight gain not then be considered a positive effect? Isnt it poverty that tends to be a predictor of weight gain and obesity? Shouldnt having access to bread, milk, meat and veggies make you healthier? Shouldnt any food dollar assistance make ones family healthier?
Let us consider, however, our list of Food Stamp allowables which in many ways can be connected to conversations around whats served in school lunches across the country. The basics such as breads, dairy meats, veggies and other staples are covered, but they are generally of a lesser grade (uncouth, discriminatory government cheese jokes anyone?). Certainly food stamps can be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, but they can also purchase convenient frozen, prepared and high-fat products. Organics are only minimally allowed if at all with restrictions varying state-to-state, and food stamps still widely cover unhealthy, high-fat creations such as Lunchables and other food monstrosities.
The study results do not explain why food stamps lead to unhealthy choices and practices (which would necessitate input from other studies and disciplines). The reality is that reliance upon food stamps does not cause weight gain/obesity; it is how they are spent in addition to other environmental and cultural factors as well as personal choices that influence weight gain. But in a time-obsessed culture and struggling economic times a good number of Americans are faced with making tough food decisions on a daily basis, and such ramifications tend metastasize in disadvantaged communities. So my gut leads me to guess that since food stamps are used by lower-income families and sensitive populations by nature, and that it is women in these populations who are the predominant busy, working heads-of-household let alone food shoppers and preparers that such discoveries are not altogether surprising. But they are still unsettling, and should serve as a wake-up-call.
Well, whats the remedy? The authors and myself are quick to point out that it is high time policymakers revise Food Stamp legislation to make it easier to purchase healthier foods and changing the list of food stamp allowables by discouraging unhealthy choices. Fresh fruits and vegetables need to be encouraged, and they should easier to purchase with food stamps widely in conventional grocers and open-air farmers markets. Wireless EBT (electronic benefits transfer and food stamp cards) access terminals remain perennial and pervasive obstacles to under-funded farmers markets, and the degree of community education and promotional efforts of such programs, where they do exist, is limited at best.
Luckily, there are efforts to lobby congress and state governments to do just that. Please, tell us what groups and state agencies you are aware of that are challenging the status quo and applying pressure to policymakers to make good, clean and fair food available for all.
[postscript: The author Patrick would like to humbly say that yes, as an adolescent he and his mother fell prey to the advertising monsters and kings of convenience by purchasing a few Lunchables in his day until he realized they were nasty. Patricks penance for this fault was paid via a two-season stint as a school garden and urban farm manager in his mid-20s.]