Last week House Republicans voted to cut benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, slashing $39 billion in benefits over the next ten years in a vote of 217 to 210. All members of the Democratic caucus voted against the bill, which would affect 4 million people.
In June, fiscal conservatives squashed the Farm Bill that would have cut spending by $20 billion over ten years after determining the decrease was too meager. This new bill is their response to that. If successful, half of the cuts will put a stop to food aid after three months to people between 18 and 50 with no minors living with them if they are unable to find work, a move that makes little sense.
Poverty and health are inextricably linked, and food security plays a central role in this. Not only does poverty affect a family’s ability to buy food, it prevents them from buying healthy food. In the United States, lower income individuals are more likely to be obese, putting a strain on the healthcare system. Currently, beneficiaries of SNAP are eligible for SNAP-Ed, a nutrition education program designed to promote healthy eating on a limited budget. It is unclear how these cuts will affect SNAP-Ed.
African-Americans, no strangers to health inequalities, will be disproportionately affected by this change if successful. A new study shows that 90 percent of African-Americans benefitted from food stamps at one point or another in their lives. One in four African-American households faces food insecurity, and make up about 23% of all SNAP recipients.
A controversial study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that overweight people have significantly lower mortality risk than normal weight individuals, and slightly obese people have the same mortality risk as normal weight individuals.
This meta-analysis, headed by statistician Katherine Flegal, Ph.D., at the National Center for Health Statistics, looked at almost 100 studies that included 3 million people and over 270,000 deaths. They concluded that while overweight and slightly obese appears protective against early mortality, those with a body mass index (BMI) over 35 have a clear increase in risk of early death. The conclusions of this meta-analysis are consistent with other observations of lower mortality among overweight and moderately obese patients.
Many public health practitioners are concerned with the ways these findings are being presented to the public. Virginia Hughes in Nature explains “some public-health experts fear…that people could take that message as a general endorsement of weight gain.” Health practitioners are understandably in disagreement how best to translate these findings into policy, bringing up the utility of BMI in assessing risk in the first place.
Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told National Public Radio that “this study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it.” He argues that weight and BMI remain only one measure of health risk, and that practitioners need to look at the individual’s habits and lifestyle taken as a whole.