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Primer on US Food and Nutrition Policy and Public Health: Food Assistance

Published: July 2019
Bibliographic reference: Kelly D. Brownell, D. Lee Miller, Marlene B. Schwartz, “Primer on US Food and Nutrition Policy and Public Health: Food Assistance”, American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 7 (July 1, 2019): pp. 988-989.

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In the food assistance section of this US food and nutrition policy primer, we focus on inadequate access to healthy food, a problem that fuels the dual burden of food insecurity and obesity. Vast numbers of Americans are affected, with staggering public health consequences. Nearly 12% of all American households, and almost 18% of children younger than 18 years, experience food insecurity. At the same time, 20% of American children are overweight or obese, triple the number from the 1970s, and two thirds of adults are overweight or obese, with a cascade of associated medical, social, and economic disadvantages. In the other editorials in this series, we address agriculture and school nutrition

Persistent threats to funding of food assistance programs make it difficult to address the key issues—namely, how these programs can best reduce poverty, improve nutrition, and protect public health. If battles over funding would cease and benefits were extended to all in need, then attention could focus on maximizing reach and effect. For instance, the percentage of individuals eligible for SNAP who are actually enrolled varies widely across states, from a low of 56% to a high approaching 100%. Improving low enrollment rates would provide significant benefit at little cost to the states.

Modeling the effects of various nutrition standards for SNAP and WIC would be helpful, as would additional studies on financial incentives to improve diet quality; analyses of the benefits and drawbacks of controversial possibilities such as the restriction of SNAP benefits for the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages; better use of technology to improve enrollment and to ease use of benefits; and above all, ensuring that the nutrition promoted and provided through such programs maximizes health, cognitive development in children, and other key outcomes.