The United States Department of Agriculture published a report late last year detailing which foods are purchased by families in the SNAP program (food stamps). Not surprisingly, when the results were publicized, considerable attention focused on the top food expenditure in SNAP households: soda.
One Op-Ed piece published in the Statesman (Jan. 22) implied that the high cost of healthful food is to blame. Another comment on the original article pointed to the need for nutrition education. Both of these factors contribute to what consumers put into their carts, and bodies.
American consumers’ affinity for soda is complex and goes beyond choices at the grocery store. It is widely understood that sugary drinks contribute to health problems, yet families still purchase and consume them. Similarly, fast food and highly processed “junk foods” contribute to the same problems, yet low-income consumers still spend in these categories. Why? Several barriers impact spending decisions.
Busy schedules and lack of basic cooking skills can mean families share fewer meals around the table. Couple this with pressure to prepare nutritious, home-cooked meals and convenience-focused food can easily become the default. There are real cost savings when lettuce is washed and cut at home versus bought in prepackaged bags. However, time-crunched consumers are more likely to buy costly convenience foods when cooking seems difficult and demanding. The perception that nutritious food costs more than “junk food” can be mitigated with a little effort in terms of meal planning and developing basic cooking skills.
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Fortunately, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) addresses these concerns by providing nutrition education, health care referrals and healthy supplemental foods for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, as well as infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk. WIC has operated for 40 years and is uniquely poised to initiate nutrition education at the earliest possible opportunity.
WIC is more than just the “cheese and milk place.” Families are empowered to take active roles in their health, nutrition and food relationship while also receiving invaluable resources to assist them. WIC’s individualized approach helps participants find achievable steps toward healthful eating specific to their family’s budget and preferences. However, WIC’s influence is limited. Participants are ultimately responsible for turning the education into action.
Understandably, taxpayers may get frustrated when reading headlines such as the one published in the Statesman. However, the convenience-centered food culture that our society is creating (and precipitating) plays a major role in food prices, marketing and availability. There are public assistance programs that engage and motivate families to make better choices with limited resources, and WIC is leading the charge.
Erin Green, Cheryl Jorgenson, Cindy Galloway and Amber Hill are registered dietitians for the Central District Health Department.