Role of the Federal Nutrition Programs in Combating 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

“[A]mong the food insecure population, SNAP participation appears to buffer against poor dietary quality and obesity, particularly among non-Hispanic Whites and marginally food-secure Hispanics.”
Nguyen et al., 2015

Research clearly shows that the federal nutrition programs do not contribute to the current obesity crisis in the U.S. (Fan & Jin, 2015; 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, public health and nutrition experts recommend increasing participation in the federal nutrition programs to promote healthy eating and prevent obesity (Institute of Medicine, 2009; Institute of Medicine, 2011; White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, 2010).

Participation in the federal nutrition programs improves dietary intake, which is critical in combating the current obesity problem. Consider the following selection of recent findings:

  • School meal participants are less likely to have nutrient inadequacies and are more likely to consume fruit, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch (Clark & Fox, 2009; Condon et al., 2009).
  • Low-income students who eat both school breakfast and lunch have significantly better overall diet quality than low-income students who do not eat school meals (Hanson & Olson, 2013).
  • The new school meal nutrition standards are having a positive impact on student food selection and consumption, especially for fruits and vegetables (Cohen et al., 2014; Cullen et al., 2015; Schwartz et al., 2015).
  • Packed lunches brought from home by pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students have more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sugar than school lunches, and less protein, fiber, vitamin A, and calcium, according to a study conducted after implementation of the new school meal nutrition standards (Farris et al., 2014).
  • Few packed lunches and snacks brought from home meet National School Lunch Program standards and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) afterschool snack standards, respectively (Caruso & Cullen, 2015; Hubbard et al., 2014).
  • Children in afterschool programs consume more calories, salty foods, and sugary foods on days they bring their own snack than on days they only eat the afterschool snack provided through the National School Lunch Program or CACFP (Kenney et al., 2014).
  • Child care sites participating in CACFP, especially Head Start centers, serve more fruits, vegetables, and milk, and fewer sweetened beverages, sweets, and snack foods than non-participating child care sites (Ritchie et al., 2012).
  • Participating in CACFP is associated with greater milk and vegetable consumption among low-income preschoolers (Korenman et al., 2013).
  • Multiple studies link the revised WIC food packages with improvements in the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, and lower-fat milk (Hartline-Grafton, 2014; Schultz et al., 2015). Research also finds improvements in infant feeding practices in terms of the appropriate introduction of solid foods as well as increases in breastfeeding initiation.
  • Young children enrolled in WIC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), either or both, have lower rates of nutritional deficiency than low-income non-participants (Lee et al., 2006).
  • SNAP participation is associated with better dietary quality among those low-income adults who are food insecure (Nguyen et al., 2015). More specifically, compared to similar low-income non-participants, SNAP participants with marginal, low, and very low food security have better overall dietary quality.

By providing needed food and resources, the federal nutrition programs also help to reduce food insecurity and, by extension, its negative consequences (Arteaga & Heflin, 2014; Bartfeld & Ahn, 2011; Black et al., 2012; Gundersen et al., 2012; Mabli & Worthington, 2014; Nord & Prell, 2011).

By both improving dietary intake and reducing food insecurity, participation in the federal nutrition programs plays an important role in reducing obesity. Conversely, the obesity risk rises in the absence of these programs. Consider the following selection of recent findings:

  • Participation in federally-funded child care nutrition or school meals provided in child care, preschool, school, or summer settings is associated with a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) among young, low-income children (Kimbro & Rigby, 2010). 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.”
  • Based on national data, 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).
  • School breakfast participation is associated with a lower BMI, lower probability of overweight, and lower probability of obesity (Gleason & Dodd, 2009; Millimet et al., 2010; Millimet & Tchernis, 2013).
  • Children are more vulnerable to accelerated weight gain and food insecurity during the summer – a time when many do not have access to the good nutrition provided by the school meal programs (Franckle et al., 2014; Nalty et al., 2013).
  • 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).
  • Preschool children with an unhealthy weight status (i.e., obese, overweight, or underweight) who participate in Head Start have healthier BMIs by kindergarten than non-participants – children are less obese, less overweight, and less underweight (Lumeng et al., 2015). The program’s adherence to CACFP nutrition guidelines for meals and snacks may be a driver of this.
  • Overweight and obesity rates declined among young children enrolled in the New York state WIC program within three years of the introduction of the revised WIC food packages (Chiasson et al., 2013).
  • WIC may protect against obesity among young children in families facing multiple stressors (i.e., household food insecurity and caregiver depressive symptoms) (Black et al., 2012).
  • Young children in food insecure households that receive SNAP benefits are less likely to be overweight, compared to children in food insecure households that are not receiving SNAP benefits (Goldman et al., 2014).
  • SNAP participation is associated with better weight-related outcomes, including lower BMI, among those low-income adults who are food insecure (Nguyen et al., 2015). This study’s authors conclude that “among the food insecure population, SNAP participation appears to buffer against poor dietary quality and obesity, particularly among non-Hispanic Whites and marginally food-secure Hispanics.”
  • Food insecurity is significantly associated with increased BMI in only those women not receiving food assistance (SNAP or WIC), suggesting that food assistance program participation plays a protective role against obesity among food insecure women (Karnik et al., 2011).