Role of the Federal Nutrition Programs in Combating Overweight and Obesity

By both improving dietary intake and reducing food insecurity, participation in the federal nutrition programs plays an important role in reducing obesity.

“We also find that subsidized meals at school or day care are beneficial for children’s weight status, and we argue that expanding access to subsidized meals may be the most effective tool to use in combating obesity in poor children.”
Kimbro & Rigby, 2010

Research clearly shows that the federal nutrition programs do not contribute to the current obesity crisis in the U.S. (Gleason et al., 2009; Hofferth & Curtin, 2005; Linz et al., 2004; ver Ploeg, 2009; ver Ploeg et al., 2008). In fact, by both improving dietary intake and reducing food insecurity, participation in the federal nutrition programs plays a critical role in obesity prevention. For this reason, increasing participation in the federal nutrition programs is a childhood obesity prevention strategy recommended by two recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) committees and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity (Institute of Medicine, 2009; Institute of Medicine, 2011a; White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, 2010).

First, it is indisputable that participation in the federal nutrition programs improves dietary intake, which is critical in combating the current obesity problem.

  • Low-income school-aged children who eat federally-funded school breakfast have better overall diet quality (as measured by the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index) than those who eat breakfast elsewhere or skip breakfast (Basiotis et al., 1999).
  • School meal participants are less likely to consume competitive foods at school, less likely to have nutrient inadequacies, and more likely to consume fruit, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch (Clark & Fox, 2009; Condon et al., 2009; Fox et al., 2009). (Competitive foods are those foods and beverages sold outside of the federally-reimbursed school meals programs, often in a la carte lines, student stores, or vending machines.)
  • School-aged children have higher daily intake of fruits, vegetables, milk, and key nutrients like calcium, vitamin A, and folate on days they eat federally-funded supper at an afterschool program compared to days they do not (Plante & Bruening, 2004).
  • Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) participants 3 to 5 years of age in child-care centers have higher intake of many key nutrients and foods, including vegetables and milk, and fewer servings of fats and sweets (Bruening et al., 1999).
  • The overall diets of young children 1 to 4 years of age enrolled in WIC are more nutrient-rich and lower in calories from solid fats and added sugars than the diets of income-eligible non-participants (Cole & Fox, 2008).
  • Six months after the introduction of the new WIC food package, fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and lower fat milk consumption improved among California WIC families (Whaley et al., 2012).
  • Young children enrolled in WIC and SNAP/Food Stamps, either or both, have lower rates of nutritional deficiency than low-income non-participants (Lee et al., 2006).
  • Each additional SNAP/Food Stamp dollar increases a household’s score for overall dietary quality (as measured by the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index) (Basiotis et al., 1998).

Second, by providing needed food and resources, the federal nutrition programs help to reduce food insecurity and, by extension, its negative consequences, which include obesity (Black et al., 2012; Casey et al., 2006; Gundersen et al., 2012; Herman et al., 2004; Nord & Prell, 2011; Nord & Romig, 2006).

Finally, by both improving dietary intake and reducing food insecurity, participation in the federal nutrition programs plays an important role in reducing obesity, as the research shows. Conversely, the obesity risk rises in the absence of these programs.

  • Participation in federally-funded child care or school meals provided in child care, preschool, school, or summer settings is associated with a significantly lower body mass index among young, low-income children (Kimbro & Rigby, 2010). (Body mass index, or BMI, is an indicator of excess body fat.) These findings lead researchers to conclude that “subsidized meals at school or day care are beneficial for children’s weight status, and we argue that expanding access to subsidized meals may be the most effective tool to use in combating obesity in poor children” (Kimbro & Rigby, 2010).
  • A nationally representative study of U.S. school students finds that school breakfast participation is associated with a significantly lower BMI (Gleason & Dodd, 2009).
  • Economists estimate that the receipt of a free or reduced-price school lunch reduces obesity rates by at least 17 percent (Gundersen et al., 2012).
  • Children are more vulnerable to rapid BMI gains and food insecurity during the summer – a time when many do not have access to the good nutrition provided by the school meal programs (Nord & Romig, 2006; von Hippel, 2007).
  • Children of mothers working non-traditional hours are at greater risk of overweight and obesity, which suggests the importance of providing CACFP afterschool snacks and meals to children, especially those from working families (Miller & Han, 2008).
  • Food insecure girls participating in the school lunch, school breakfast, or SNAP/Food Stamp programs (or all three programs combined) have a lower risk of overweight compared to food insecure girls from non-participating households (Jones et al., 2003).
  • Current adult SNAP/Food Stamp participants in Massachusetts living in households participating in the program for at least 6 months have a lower BMI compared to those participating less than 6 months, suggesting that long-term participation is associated with lower BMI (Webb et al., 2008).
  • Food insecure adults over 54 years of age participating in SNAP/Food Stamps are less likely to be overweight than non-participants (Kim & Frongillo, 2007).
  • Food insecurity is significantly associated with increased BMI in only those women not receiving food assistance (SNAP/Food Stamps or WIC), suggesting that food assistance program participation plays a protective role against obesity among food insecure women (Karnik et al., 2011).
  • Based on a study of nearly 27,000 WIC-eligible caregivers and young children, Children’s HealthWatch researchers concluded that “WIC may protect young children in dual-stressor families from the risk of obesity” (Black et al., 2012).
  • Data from a recent national study indicate that children participating in WIC are less likely to be obese than income-eligible non-participants (Cole & Fox, 2008).