The largest US federal nutrition program, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or SNAP – does not do enough to provide recipients with food security or the nutritional content that they need. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

The researchers, from Harvard School of Public Health, note that as of 2011, prevalence of food insecurity in the US was 14.9%.

Food insecurity is described as “the condition of not having or not being able to acquire enough food to meet the needs of all [household] members because of insufficient money or other resources for food.”

According to the study, approximately 44.7 million people received SNAP benefits in 2011, equating to 1 in 7 Americans. With SNAP benefits, individuals can buy most foods, however, they are not able to purchase alcohol, supplements or prepared foods.

SNAP has been shown in the past to reduce poverty for some of the poorest Americans, and it has also generated economic activity.

But this latest study looks at short-term results in the SNAP program to determine whether it affects food security and dietary quality in a small sample of low-income adults in Massachusetts.

There were 107 low-income adults who took part in the 3-month longitudinal study, and they had all requested SNAP application help from a non-profit anti-hunger organization called Project Bread.

The average age of the participants was 49, and most of them were female (75%) and white (75%).

Eric Rimm, lead investigator and associate professor in Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, talks about their results:

After participating in SNAP for a few months, a substantial proportion of SNAP participants still reported marginal, low, or very low food security, which suggests that SNAP could do more to adequately address the problem of food insecurity.”

He adds that although most people would assume receiving SNAP benefits would lead to purchasing and consuming healthier foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, “there was no appreciable improvement in dietary quality among SNAP participants after the initiation of benefits.”

Although the researchers observed a small improvement in food security for both SNAP participants and nonparticipants, there were not any significant differences between the two groups.

Additionally, they found that adults on SNAP benefits actually increased the amount of refined grains they consumed, compared with those not on SNAP benefits.

As a result of their findings, the study authors note that “policies, programs, and nutrition education initiatives that improve the nutritional impact of SNAP should be implemented to enhance the program’s influence on the diets and well-being of low-income Americans.”

The majority of benefit recipients themselves support the idea of incentivizing the purchase of healthy foods, as well as cooking or nutrition education classes and restrictions on unhealthy foods.

Study authors note that New York City put a proposal forward to the US Department of Agriculture to restrict the purchase of sodas and sugar-sweetened drinks using SNAP benefits, but the government organization rejected the proposal. Public health advocates, researchers and even SNAP participants supported these restrictions.

The researchers conclude their study by suggesting that further research be conducted to find the best ways to reduce food insecurity and improve nutritional quality of SNAP beneficiary diets.

Prof. Rimm told Medical News Today:

We need to do more to help provide a framework for healthier eating. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is in name meant to help provide nutritional assistance to beneficiaries, but with the very simple framework now instituted, it only provides resources to buy any food.”

The researchers note that the sample in their study may not be representative of low-income Massachusetts adults or the wider SNAP population, as it was relatively small and recruited from a telephone hotline.

“This may have excluded individuals without regular telephone access, who may have the lowest incomes and the poorest dietary quality,” they write.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study detailing how the majority of foods star athletes promote are nutrient-poor.