Malnutrition in the United States and How to Improve the SNAP Program
By Dat Pham
Malnutrition, as defined in The Encyclopædia Britannica, is a “physical condition resulting either from a faulty or inadequate diet” (“Malnutrition”). With this definition, malnutrition can be interpreted as under-nutrition and over-nutrition, which are the lack and excess in nutrients respectively. Malnutrition is common in developing and under-developed countries because people in these countries do not usually have enough money to buy foods. Some people might think that in a developed nation like the United States, malnutrition cannot exist. Nevertheless, malnutrition still exists and its negative effects on a child’s development is a tremendous issue for society in the United States. An additional bonus point procedure in the government’s food assistance program may assist in halting malnutrition.
Because of food insecurity, a large number of children in the United States are malnourished, especially those in low-income households. According to a report issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 14.9% of the households, 7,989 households with children and 10% of the children had food insecurity in 2011 (“Household Food …2011” 6- 8). Food insecurity is defined by Joda P. Derrickson et al. as “the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways, is limited or uncertain” (156). This means that food insecurity can lead to under-nutrition because it limits adequate foods to people. Maybe the problem is partly because of money. Poor people do not usually have enough money to buy foods. This is why nearly 40% of low-income households have food insecurity (USDA, “Household Food …Supplement” 3). In addition, food insecurity does not only contribute to under-nutrition, but it also takes part in the growth of over-nutrition in the United States. According to Patricia K. Smith, “two of the three longitudinal studies report that food insecurity predicts higher BMI in early childhood” (89). As households with food insecurity do not have enough money to buy healthy foods, parents often buy cheap and unhealthy foods, which contain a lot of fats and calories, for their kids. The BMI, which is the abbreviation of Body Mass Index, is “an estimate of total body fats” (“Body mass index”). If one has higher BMI than a normal one, his or her body will have more unnecessary fats so a child with high BMI may suffer obesity, which is a type of malnutrition. All of the data means that food insecurity should be considered a significant problem for the U.S. since a large percentage of households are low-income.
Obesity – a common type of over-nutrition in the United States – can lead to vast negative effects on both children’s health and lives. Obviously, low-income families do not have much money to buy healthy foods. Eating cheap but fat and calories rich foods can make the child gain unnecessary weight and gradually become obese. For example, in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan informs that soda companies use high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is an unhealthy corn bi-product, instead of sugar because HFCS costs less than sugar (104). As a result, sodas become more unhealthy and cause obesity easier than they did in the past. This is why in 2008, among the low-income households, 14.6% of preschool-aged children in the U.S. have obesity (Sharma et al. 769). Obesity is a dangerous epidemic for the
U.S. because it can result in type II diabetes. According to an article in Pediatrics, the combination of the increase in obesity and the decrease in physical activities explains the prevalence of type II diabetes in American children (American Diabetes Association 674). Diabetes is really a burden for the child’s life since it cannot be cured permanently so that child has to get treatment for the whole life. Also, diabetes can affect the economics for it costs both those poor households and Medicare program. In addition, if a child is obese, he or she will not have a normal life like a normal one. Because of their physical appearances, obese children are believed to be lazy. Thus, it may be difficult for them to make friends or relationship. As a result, these children may become autistic or antisocial.
Besides obesity, nutrient deficiencies’ longitudinal effects on children’s mental health are more drastic because they degrade learning ability. While over-nutrition occurs while poor people can only buy cheap and unhealthy foods, poor households with very low food security do not even have enough money to buy those foods. According to USDA, 5.7% of the U.S. households have very low food security (“Household Food…2011” 6). This is an alarming issue because children in these families do not usually eat adequate meals so their bodies can easily lack important nutrients. In a recent research, a group of scientists in Massachusetts found that children with protein-energy malnutrition have significantly lower average IQ than the average IQ of the normal ones (Galler et al. 187, 189). IQ index is very important for the child’s cognitive development since this index shows how intelligent that child is. Thus, this research shows the evidence that lack of protein can delay the whole nation’s development since young generations are a country’s future. Furthermore, iron deficiency – a specific problem from malnutrition – is fundamental for the child’s cognition and learning ability. Indeed, in a study about iron deficiency, Sally Grantham- McGregor and Cornelius Ani concluded that children older than two years old with anemia “usually had poorer cognition and school achievement than did nonanemic children” (665S). Thus, when a child lacks iron in his or her diet, that child will gradually get difficulty in comprehending stuffs. As a result, that child’s future will be affected adversely just because of lack of iron.
In order to prevent malnutrition in the U.S., the government had deployed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The purpose of this food stamp program is that SNAP helps low-income people buy the food they need (“Food Stamp Program…” 1). This seems to be a useful aid for poor families since it assists low-income households by giving them credits to buy foods. If one is eligible for this program, he or she will receive a debit card. This card, as mentioned in Poverty and the Government in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, is for eliminating fraud and increasing the efficiency of using food stamps (“Food Stamp Program…” 3). Each month, a certain number of credits will be transferred to this card. The card can only be used for purchasing food and credits in this card cannot be accumulated, which means one cannot save these credits for the next month.
Nevertheless, SNAP benefit allows people to buy soft drinks, candies and prepared foods, which are not healthy and may cause obesity – the most popular type of malnutrition in the United States. Indeed, poor people do not have much time to cook and money so they would look for cheap and prepared foods (Barbassa). Of course, these foods are not healthy. For example, one may use his or her SNAP benefit to buy microwaveable prepared foods. This definitely leads to malnutrition in children because they eat what their parents have. The problem is confirmed in the USDA SNAP report: when being asked about her child’s unhealthy habits, a woman told that it was hard to make her kid eat vegetables since that kid was used to eating fried foods and drinking sodas (“SNAP Food…” 57). Furthermore, banning these unhealthy products from SNAP benefit seems impossible. For example, Minnesota’s request for denying soft drinks and sweet in 2004 was rejected (“Food Stamp Program…” 3). Maybe the government rejected this request in order to make sure that people are free to choose what to drink and these products are not as harmful as beer or alcohol.
Although banning soft drinks in SNAP benefit is not viable, there is another way to improve this food stamp program. In order to prevent childhood malnutrition in the United States, the government may enact an incentive that encourages SNAP participants to buy more healthy foods as well as to avoid soft drinks and sweets. The solution is that via their SNAP debit cards, recipients can redeem their bonus points in the next month to get credits to buy more food. In order to get bonus points, SNAP recipient has to buy healthy foods rather than sodas or candy. The principle of exchanging bonus points is the following: for each $1 purchase of healthy foods, SNAP participant will get one point, each point will add 50 cents to the SNAP debit card on the first day of the next month and then the bonus points will be reset to zero in amount. Otherwise, for every $1 purchase of sodas, soft drinks or sweets, SNAP card holder will be subtracted 0.5 point. If SNAP recipients get negative point amount, then there will be no subtraction of their SNAP benefits in the next month. This is to ensure that anyone is free to buy what he or she wants and to raise the awareness that unhealthy products cost more than some people thought. To acknowledge whether a food is healthy or not, one could look it up on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website or flyers at the store. Therefore, the USDA has to do research and make a list of what eligible food items in SNAP are considered healthy.
This solution can prevent the prevalence of malnutrition and food insecurity by encouraging SNAP recipients to eat healthy foods. Indeed, using this bonus point system may prevent children from the scenario that “the ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” is “limited or uncertain” (Derrickson et al. 156). If one needs more SNAP credits to buy foods, he or she has only one option: buy the healthy ones. Furthermore, according to a USDA report, there were children in nearly half of the SNAP households in 2011 (“Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition…2011” 18). As a result, when their parents consume healthy foods, these children can form a habit of eating healthy foods, too. If this solution is deployed, the rate of 61% people who use SNAP benefits to consume soft drinks and sweets can decrease abruptly (USDA, Implications of Restricting the Use of Food Stamp Benefits – Summary 6). Some people may argue that why cash back concept is not considered. This concept has appeared in California since in an article in Historical Encyclopedia, the state started “Healthy Food Purchase” program in 2006 so that SNAP recipients who used their SNAP benefit to buy vegetables and fresh fruits would be given back the money (“Food Stamp…” 3). This is an effective strategy because it stimulates people to buy healthy foods. However, people can also spend the bonus money on things rather than food. For example, if one wanted money, he or she might use SNAP benefit to buy these foods in order to get cash and then dumped these foods because that person has got what he or she wants: money.
This bonus point system is viable because the bonus credits can be funded from the Medicare and Medicaid program. Malnutrition is not only a burden for the society but also for the Medicare and Medicaid program that use money from tax payers to aid the patients. Thus, this bonus point system has its fundamental to be practical. First, a report from the USDA shows that in 2006, a person received an average amount of $94.75 in SNAP benefit (“SNAP Annual Summary”). Thus, in ideal condition that person got maximum point for the next month, the bonus amount each month would be $94.75 times 0.5, which is equal to $47.38. So that person could gain a maximum bonus amount of $47.38 in every month, which is $568.5 a year.
Nevertheless, the annual average Medicare aid for an obese person, who suffers malnutrition, was $1429 more than a non-obese one (Finkelstein w828). Therefore, if eating healthily prevents obesity, then the additional cost to treat obesity in Medicare and Medicaid program would definitely offset the bonus amount. In addition, the extra money could be used to pay for annual cost for this solution or other public issues.
Fighting malnutrition is not a simple move. Using the bonus point system can give Americans more strength to defeat malnutrition. If there is no wise change in the food stamp program, many children may suffer preventable and predictable effects caused by malnutrition. Without using this method, the government needs to come up with a better solution quickly because malnutrition is still affecting America’s children every hour, every minute. It is time to make some change for a better life of the children.
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