Food Assistance & Nutrition Programs
One in five Americans participates in national food and nutrition assistance programs, which together account for more than half of the spending at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The programs include financial support for food purchases for low-income families, supplemental foods provided to pregnant women and women with young children, and free and reduced-price meals for children in school and preschool.
While these programs provide much-needed help, they also create opportunities for ensuring better nutrition for children and adults who are at high risk for developing obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Right now, however, this opportunity is being squandered. People participating in USDA food assistance programs score lower on an index of healthy eating than do wealthier Americans, and also lower than people of similar income who do not receive assistance. The public health community is debating how to update food assistance and nutrition programs, for example by offering incentives for buying more fruits and vegetables and thus helping people shift away from purchasing primarily nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods.
While increasing nutrition education within food assistance and nutrition programs is an important step, creating real change in the diets of program participants requires additional attention to the role of food prices and community access to healthy foods.