Dietary challenge

Federal food programs can aid the fight against obesity

While federally funded nutrition programs have made good progress in reducing nutrition-related health disparities between the rich and the poor, those same programs have taken heat for being potential contributors to the nation’s obesity epidemic.


That’s an unfair criticism, according to Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and co-author of a new report that concludes that research on the food stamp program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) does not “indicate that the programs were causing obesity.”

However, Kennedy acknowledges that the diets of food program participants are still not the best for good health, and low-income populations may be more at risk for weight gain. “Many low-income households face what is known as the ‘double burden of disease,’ ” she said, “meaning that those who are food-insecure are often overweight or obese.” The good news, she said, “is that this creates an opportunity for federally funded nutrition programs to restructure [their] goals to address obesity, which is now a more prevalent problem for low-income households than under-nutrition.”

The report, “Creating Healthy States: Building Healthier Nutrition Programs,” was written for the bi-partisan National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices and proposes policy changes that would allow the food stamp and WIC programs to continue reducing nutrition-related health disparities while simultaneously confronting the obesity epidemic. Friedman School co-authors were Prof. Beatrice L. Rogers and Parke E. Wilde, assistant professor.

Consistent messages
The report urges the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the programs, to give states more authority and flexibility in promoting healthy lifestyles and for states to ensure that program participants receive consistent nutrition messages and maximum support.

“The population as a whole is struggling with overweight and obesity, not just those who are enrolled in federally funded nutrition programs,” Kennedy said.

In addition to cohesive state policy and planning, the Tufts authors note that the WIC and food stamp programs can help participants overcome barriers to better nutrition by using “innovative efforts to provide greater geographical, financial and informational access to healthful foods options.” People who live in low-income neighborhoods often have limited choices when it comes to grocery stores that offer a variety fresh fruits and vegetables. To attract more food providers into areas that are largely low-income, states can offer tax incentives and financing options, the report suggests.

States have launched initiatives to improve access to healthy foods, including farmers’ market programs that offer reduced cost shares and programs that give low-income households access to unsold produce that otherwise may have gone to waste.

Such programs can be enhanced, the report says, “by increasing the purchasing power of WIC and food stamp dollars that are spent on fruits and vegetables or whole-grain items, while decreasing the purchasing power of dollars spent on less-healthy options.”

Economic challenges
Kennedy stresses that along with necessary environmental changes within federally funded nutrition programs, the limited time allotted for nutrition education should emphasize the concept of nutrient density in order to maximize nutrients and minimize calorie intake. “Choosing nutrient-dense foods is challenging for everyone, but it can be especially difficult for families on a budget. However, despite the fact that many people believe that healthful diets cost more money, research has shown that there can be great variability among the price of foods with similar nutrient density,” she said. Kennedy believes that “working with [food program] participants to influence their food choices could result in a more nutritious diet for less money.”

“The nutrition community needs to look ahead and analyze what we can do to best serve food stamp and WIC participants and how these programs can play an integral role in preventing obesity,” Kennedy said. “There are some exciting activities taking place in many states across the nation. We need to build on these existing initiatives and determine how we can leverage the existing food stamp and WIC programs to promote healthier lifestyles.”