An Overview of US Food and Nutrition Programs

Hilary Hoynes (Berkley) and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (Northwestern) have a new NBER piece that provides a very useful overview of the four major food and nutrition programs in the U.S., including their histories, current statistics, potential benefits, and the current research on their effectiveness.  An ungated version of the piece is available here.

This chapter provides an overview of the patchwork of U.S. food and nutrition programs, with detailed discussions of SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program), WIC, and the school breakfast and lunch programs. Building on Currie’s (2003) review, we document the history and goals of the programs, and describe the current program rules. We also provide program statistics and how participation and costs have changed over time. The programs vary along how “in-kind” the benefits are, and we describe economic frameworks through which each can be analyzed. We then review the recent research on each program, focusing on studies that employ techniques that can isolate causal impacts. We conclude by highlighting gaps in current knowledge and promising areas for future research.

Food Access and Food Policy

Ploeg, Dutko and Breneman have a new paper coming out in Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy taking to task the way food access and “food desserts” are measured and the implications of those challenges for policy design.

They provide a good description of the ways in which food access is measured and some of the data sources used for developing those measures. Most of these have to do with measuring things like income, distance to stores, availability of transportation, etc.; measuring retail food availability versus healthy food availability; a tendency to focus only on low-income neighborhoods; and defining what is means to say access is “adequate” or “inadequate” from a policy perspective.

One of the things they do not mention, which I have been thinking about recently as a potential research project, is the extent to which food access measures correlate with health outcomes in a community. This is closely related to work Diogo Souza Monteiro at Newcastle University has begun looking at the kinds of grocery stores in UK neighborhoods and the incidence of various public health outcomes.

Focusing on health outcomes would go well beyond the critique of the tendency to focus on low-income neighborhoods, since even in communities where food access is (relatively) good or where incomes are on average higher, there could be differing health outcomes associated with the types and numbers of food retailers available. Just because a healthy food option is readily available does not mean local health will necessarily be better. And after all, a significant reason for caring about food access is not for the sake of access to food itself, but for the (public) health consequences of limited food access. So the existence of a correlation between health outcomes (or types of health outcomes) and measures of food access and food security would seem a necessary first step in designing any potential policies to address the food access problem.

That said, Ploeg, Dutko and Breneman’s paper seems a good starting point for thinking more clearly about food access and food policy. Unfortunately, I think the paper is gated. The abstract follows.

Policymakers have dedicated increasing attention to whether Americans have access to healthful food. As a result, various methods for measuring food store access at the national level have been developed to identify areas that lack access. However, these methods face definitional, data, and methodological limitations. The focus on neighborhoods instead of individuals underestimates the barriers that some individuals face in accessing healthy food, and overestimates the problem in other neighborhoods. This paper reviews and critiques currently available national-level measures of food access. While multiple measures of food access are needed to understand the problem, we recommend greater attention be paid to individual measures of food store access.