Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Food Stamps and Healthy Choices

A profile of the Food Stamp/EBT program in the New York Times last weekend had a number of surprising statistics, foremost that an astonishing 1.5 million New York City residents received benefits. Another surprise, to me, came in the breakdown of most popular items purchased. The "most popular" item: red meat. Nationwide, inexpensive red meats (7.8 percent of all transactions) and milk and yogurt (7.6 percent, combined). That's just as a percentage of actual transactions, not dollar value. Since meat tends to be more expensive that any other food purchase, the percentage of actual costs associated with meat purchases must be even higher. Also, high on the list were "more expensive" red meats at 6.7 percent and "bacon, sausage and luncheon meats" at 5.9 percent. Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture? Red meat is not the best nutritional bang for your buck and is not the healthiest choice, especially for a demographic group that may be having health issues, in addition to tough economic straits.

While I don't support strict shopping restrictions for food stamp recipients, there's an argument that better education is needed to promote better shopping habits and menu planning. By inadvertently supporting a steady diet of red meat, the food stamp program might be contributing to larger problems of obesity and health concerns related to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I'm certainly an occasional red meat eater, and I believe in moderation rather than strict dietary rules. But economical and healthy meals can be created without a over-dependence on red meat. Chicken (just 5.3 percent of EBT purchases), fish, beans, grains and vegetables can all be the center of healthy and satisfying meals.

I'm interested to learn what nutritional advice or other educational supports are provided to people who depend on the food assistance program. Can better information lead to better buying choices now, and improved health down the road?

Buying Milk and Meat, With Plastic Alan Feuer, NYT, 2.26.10
Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance, Jason DeParle, NYT 2.10.10
A History of Food Stamps, Use and Policy, An interactive timeline. NYT, 2.11.10
Hungry in America, NYT 2.09.10

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