Food stamps are fattening

A tight food-stamp budget doesn't leave much room for fresh fruit, and that may contribute to recipients' higher body weight.

A tight food-stamp budget doesn't leave much room for fresh fruit, and that may contribute to recipients' higher body weight, according to a new study.

It’s certainly not what the federal government intends, but a long-term, nationwide study finds the U.S. Food Stamp Program may contribute to the obesity of recipients. Food stamp users have a body mass index that’s 1.24 points higher, on average, than nonusers.

“We can’t prove that the Food Stamp Program causes weight gain, but the study suggests a strong linkage,” says Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study and a research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research.

The study tracked 10,000 women–both food-stamp recipients and nonrecipients–over a 14-year period. Even after accounting for income (poverty is a known contributor to obesity), race, and education, researchers identified a strong link between food stamp use and higher body weight. “Every way we looked at the data, it was clear that the use of food stamps was associated with weight gain,” says Zagorsky.

Of course, food stamps aren’t exactly generous–just $81 a month in 2002, the last year examined in the study. “That figure was shocking to me. I think it would be very difficult for a shopper to regularly buy healthy, nutritious food on that budget,” says Zagorsky. Fatty, high-calorie processed foods tend to be cheap, which helps stretch limited food funds.

“Every way we looked at the data, it was clear that the use of food stamps was associated with weight gain.”

Offering incentives like more benefits for purchasing healthier fare and taking nutrition classes may be a solution, he suggests.

Improving access to good food is a related issue, since food-stamp recipients who want better food may have a hard time finding it. A recent USDA report finds many people in poverty live in s0-called food deserts with limited–or no–access to affordable, nutritious food.