US government nutrition program lacks nutritional standards, putting recipients at risk: report

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15 Mar 2018 --- More than 40 million Americans who rely on a government nutrition program face major health problem risks, a new report claims. It reports that the program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), lacks important nutritional standards. There is a growing concern over high rates of obesity and related chronic diseases in the US. States and the federal government – which together provide millions with Medicaid and Medicare – are in a unique position to make a difference, the American Heart  Association notes.

The report released this week by the Bipartisan Policy Center found there are still “untapped opportunities” to change the situation for people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As it stands, it is the only federal food assistance program without nutrition standards.

In addition to increasing education; coordinating federal and state agencies and programs; and aligning SNAP benefits with Medicaid, the report suggests:

  • Making diet quality a core SNAP objective.
  • Strengthening incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables.
  • Authorizing US Department of Agriculture funds to for pilot projects to improve SNAP participants’ diets.
  • Strengthening SNAP retailer standards to improve the food environment for all shoppers.

“The overall purpose of this report is to shine a light on the fact that with more than 40 million people receiving SNAP benefits, their health can be improved through a greater attention on nutrition and what is actually being delivered,” said former Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, a doctor and a co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center task force that produced the report.

Furthermore, The American Heart Association is advocating for a voluntary pilot program in SNAP to be included in the farm bill reauthorization. The program would offer incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables, exclude sugary beverage purchases and create evaluations to assess elements such as impact on consumer purchasing, stigma and retailer implementation. 

US states could also be encouraged to run such pilots. Such pilot programs, plus recommendations from the new report, could lead to important data that could help assess the importance of healthy food access and diet quality, AHA CEO Nancy Brown said.

“Moving forward, we believe this comprehensive report provides lawmakers with a good starting point for discussions on how maintain the current integrity and funding for SNAP,” Brown says, “while successfully delivering the maximum public health benefits to the Americans it supports.”

A work in progress
The absence of nutrition standards for SNAP recipients is a longstanding problem. A 2012 study found people using SNAP consume 39 percent fewer whole grains, 46 percent more red meat and women in the program drank 61 percent more sugary beverages.

Sugary beverages are the largest single source of added sugars in Americans’ diets and have been linked to heart disease and stroke risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Furthermore, a 2016 study found that teen and adult SNAP recipients had larger waist-lines and higher levels of obesity than people who were not in the program, even when controlling for income.

Ann M. Veneman, former secretary of agriculture and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s prevention initiative co-chair, says the new report reflects a shifting perspective on the impact of nutrition on health care.

“We know that so many diseases people experience today are diet and obesity related,” she said. “We really believe that if we don’t begin the discussion on how to connect the various federal programs that are impacting people’s health, we won’t be able to affect the underlying issue of the rising cost of health care.”

The American Heart Association is advocating for a voluntary pilot program in SNAP to be included in the farm bill reauthorization. The program would offer incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables, exclude sugary beverage purchases and create evaluations to assess elements such as impact on consumer purchasing, stigma and retailer implementation.