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Healthy Diet in a SNAP?

September 21, 2017

A healthy diet is an important part of Mindful Living—the right balance of can have a huge impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. A nutritious diet shouldn’t be limited by the amount of money one person has or doesn’t have in their wallet. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP is our domestic hunger safety net and it works to fill the nutritional gaps of low-income individuals and families. Unfortunately, a new study finds that SNAP alone does not cover the costs of a federally recommended diet for lower-income families.

Finding the Right Balance

The federal dietary guidelines published by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services focus on five food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines has specific recommendations for each category.

  • Vegetables: a fresh variety including dark green, red and orange, legumes, starchy, and “other.”
  • Fruit: whole, fresh fruits and 100 percent fruit juice are suggested.
  • Grains: lots of whole grains and a limited intake of refined grains.
  • Dairy: fat-free, low-fat, and soy products (such as yogurt, cheese, or milk) are suggested.
  • Protein: a variety of fresh things, including meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, seed, soy products, and some beans and peas.

With these basic food groups and the federal calorie guidelines (MyPlate Daily Checklist), families can calculate the ideal healthy diet for their family—down to the exact ounce of grains or cup of vegetables. Unfortunately, buying the necessary food to meet these guidelines can be costly.

Is a Healthy Diet Possible on SNAP?

Researchers from North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a study SNAP and the federal dietary guidelines. They found that a family of four needs $1,109 to $1,249 a month to follow the basic federal food group and calorie guidelines. This is far beyond what low-income families can afford, even with SNAP. 

According to the latest data, the average SNAP benefit is $125 per month per individual, meaning that the average family of four receives $500 a month. This is far below the $1,249 recommendation. Thus, the NCSU and Union of Concerned Scientists researchers report that SNAP only covers “43 to 60 percent of what it costs consume a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines for what constitutes a healthy diet.”

SNAP is not designed to cover all cost of food for low-income families (since it is supplemental), so this means that the average family with SNAP benefits would need an additional $626.95 to pay for a healthy diet ($487.39 if they eat a vegetarian diet). Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, co-author of the study paper and the assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences, states, “Many low-income households simply don’t have an additional $500 or $600 to spend on food in their monthly budget.” Without the extra money and healthy food, some low-income families can be putting their health at risk.

The Consequences of a Lacking Diet

A healthy diet is important for adults and especially a growing child. A diet full of fruits, veggies, and grains, can prevent high blood pressure, and stress, among other things. It’s also a contributing factor in lowering a person’s risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Children with a poor diet are more likely to face childhood obesity, which increases their chance of developing “childhood diabetes, high cholesterol, sleeping problems, and low self-esteem.“ When these children grow up they may also be at risk for kidney failure, type 2 diabetes, and strokes. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can reduce the risk of these health conditions.

A Mindful Solution

Haynes-Maslow states that even a $200 to $300 increase to the family SNAP benefits would help a family of four better achieve the dietary guidelines and live a healthier life. Such an increase is unlikely to happen as many U.S. social and health programs are facing cuts. Fortunately, Mindful groups and organizations are doing their best to fill the gaps: food banks.

Bonus. Check back later this week for a Mindful article on food banks and the amazing work that they do.

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