Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Food Stamps and Body Fat

A new wrinkle in the well-known connection between poverty and obesity: a study of the U.S. Food Stamp Program, published last month in Economics & Human Biology, found that recipients of food stamps tended to gain weight, sometimes rapidly. The average weight gain was 5.8 pounds, not huge, but enough to matter.

Food stamps themselves may be partly to blame; the program’s rules tend to steer people toward factory-made packaged food, while making it difficult to get fresh local produce. But the greater cause is surely the financial weakness that qualifies a person for food stamps. Poverty leads to choices, including food choices, that have more to do with conserving money than maintaining physical health.

Regardless of causes, a solution is needed. Excess body weight robs a person of energy and vitality, qualities that a person in poverty needs more than anyone. If poverty causes weight gain, and the weight gain causes a loss of energy, and the lack of energy makes it harder to get out of poverty, that is a cycle of poverty; it makes poverty tend to continue. If we can weaken the link between poverty and weight gain, we can reduce the duration of poverty. At least 1 in 9 Americans qualify for food stamps, so this is not a small problem.

One initiative mentioned in 60-Second Science is the Bounty Bucks program that doubles the value of food stamps (up to $10) at participating farmers’ markets in Boston. The program lets food stamp customers buy more produce, but just as important, it helps people find the farmers’ markets where their food stamps can be spent.

This is a tougher challenge in a city like Detroit, but at least a few of the produce markets there now accept the electronic payment cards of that state’s benefits program. The giant Eastern Market was first, two years ago, and the Northwest Detroit Farmers Market just signed on to the program in June.