Modifying the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to encourage better food choices could improve recipients’ health and cut billions of dollars in health care costs, according to researchers at Tufts and Harvard.
The antihunger effort, once commonly known as the food stamp program, provides $70 billion each year for low-wage working families, low-income seniors, and disabled people to buy food, Tufts said in a statement.
The researchers modeled the effects of several possible modifications to the program and found benefits in each of three scenarios. The best results came from one it called “SNAP-plus.”
Under SNAP-plus, the program would incentivize the purchase of fruits and vegetables,
nuts, whole grains, fish, and plant-based oils, and disincentivize the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages, junk food, and processed meats, the university said.
Here’s how it would work: For every dollar spent on incentivized foods, $0.30 would be returned to the recipient’s EBT, or electronic benefits transfer card, account, while for every dollar spent on disincentivized foods, $1.30 would be debited from the EBT account.
The researchers looked at the 14.5 million adults on SNAP and estimated that the SNAP-plus proposal would produce over their lifetimes $41.93 billion in health care savings and 940,000 fewer cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, while saving the government tens of billions of dollars.
“About one in seven Americans participate in SNAP, a crucial and effective program to reduce hunger. Our results suggest that SNAP can also be a powerful lever to improve nutrition, reduce major diseases, and lower health care spending,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, said in the statement.
“SNAP-plus, the combined food incentive/disincentive, showed the largest overall gains in health and cost-savings,” said Mozaffarian, co-author of the paper. The research was published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Medicine.
Researchers said in the paper that their findings “support the need to test these SNAP interventions in state pilot programs.”
The study added to previous calls to use the SNAP program to promote healthier diets for recipients. But the idea of restricting what can be bought by SNAP recipients has sparked criticism from some groups.
SNAP is reauthorized every five years as part of the farm bill. The bill expired over the weekend, with reauthorization stalled over issues such as a House provision to attach work requirements to the SNAP program, The Hill reported Monday.
In a Perspective article also published by PLOS Medicine, Dr. Hilary Kessler Seligman of the University of California San Francisco and Dr. Sanjay Basu of Stanford University said the SNAP program has far-reaching benefits. They noted that the differences are “relatively small” between SNAP recipients’ diets and the diets of those not on SNAP. The problem, the doctors said, is an “unhealthy food system.”
Seligman and Basu said it was extremely unlikely that major changes would be made to SNAP in the current bill in Congress. They said the new study’s findings highlighted the need to explore state and local programs that are already being discussed, implemented, and expanded.
“These programs, including vouchers to support fruit and vegetable purchases, healthy food procurement policies, and workplace bans on sugar-sweetened beverage sales, have generally been underresearched,” the doctors’ commentary said.
Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane @globe.com.