Children whose families are on food stamps are just as likely to be overweight and obese as other low-income youth, a new study suggests.
Researchers found poor children tend to have diets high in processed meats, saturated fat and sugary drinks and low in whole grains and fruits and vegetables - regardless of whether they receive federal nutrition assistance.
The Food Stamp Program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), places few restrictions on the type of groceries people can buy using food stamps. That has led to concern that the program isn't doing enough to encourage healthy eating, especially among young people.
One report estimated that in 2011 alone, almost $4 billion of SNAP benefits were used to purchase sodas and other soft drinks.
"The true intent of the program was to provide as much optimal nutrition as possible to the people who are in the program," said Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a health policy researcher from Boston University and a pediatric dentist in Maine.
Shenkin, who wasn't involved in the new study, is a proponent of tighter restrictions on the types of products SNAP benefits can be used to purchase - or, at least, better education for food stamp users about healthy choices.
The new research included about 5,200 low-income kids and teens who were surveyed about their diets between 1999 and 2008 as part of a long-term national health and nutrition study.
Between one-quarter and one-third of those children were part of households currently receiving SNAP benefits. To qualify, a family must be living at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or below - equal to an income of about $2,400 per month for a family of four in 2011.
About 19 percent of kids on SNAP were overweight and another 18 percent were obese, similar to the proportion of low-income children not on federal nutrition assistance who were heavy.
Both groups of young people ate less than the recommended amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables - just one serving per day or fewer of each - and more processed meat, sugary beverages and saturated fat, researchers led by Cindy Leung from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston found. There was no difference in their overall calorie intake.
Compared to children not on SNAP, those with the extra nutrition assistance consumed more high-fat dairy products and sugary drinks and ate fewer nuts and legumes.
More than 47 million Americans were on SNAP as of late 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The low intake of nutritious food among children participating in SNAP represents a significant missed opportunity for the program to promote health during an important life stage," Leung and her colleagues wrote in Pediatrics.
Not used as intended
Shenkin told Reuters Health the study is more evidence that food stamps aren't necessarily helping families be any healthier and aren't being used as they were originally intended.
"The program itself should be paying for nutritious foods that are contributors to health," he said.
Ideally, Shenkin said, the government program would reward people who buy fresh fruits and vegetables with extra benefits, for example - but that would call for increased funding. A more cost-effective option would mean requiring people purchase non-nutritious foods and drinks with their own money and not SNAP benefits, he said.
Not everyone agrees, however, with some researchers and policymakers arguing that limiting what consumers can purchase with food stamps is paternalistic. There's also a concern about a lack of grocery stores carrying healthy options in predominately low-income areas.
One potential solution, according to Shenkin, could be to expand what's covered in SNAP-related education programs to encourage people to seek more healthy options on their own.
"In no way do we want to cut food stamps," he said. "We want to optimize the value that they provide."