Food assistance programs —including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), the National School Lunch Program, and the School Breakfast Program —have been remarkably successful at their core mission: reducing food insecurity among low-income children. Moreover, writes Craig Gundersen, SNAP in particular has also been shown to reduce poverty, improve birth outcomes and children’s health generally, and increase survival among low-weight infants. Thus these programs are a crucial component of the United States’ social safety net for health.
Recent years have seen proposals to alter these programs to achieve additional goals, such as reducing childhood obesity. Two popular ideas are to restrict what recipients can purchase with SNAP benefits and to change the composition of school meals, in an effort to change eating patterns. Gundersen shows that these proposed changes are unlikely to reduce childhood obesity yet are likely to have the unintended effect of damaging the programs’ core mission by reducing participation and thus increasing food insecurity among children.
On the other hand, Gundersen writes, policy makers could contemplate certain changes that would make food assistance programs even more effective. For example, lawmakers could revisit the SNAP benefit formula, which hasn’t changed for decades, to make certain that aid is going to those who need it most. Similarly, the School Breakfast Program could be expanded to cover more children, and summer meal programs could reach more children when school isn’t in session.