A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests COVID-19 is not the only disease threatening our children’s health. The authors found that childhood overweight and obesity rates rose dramatically over the course of the pandemic in a select population of children. The study tracked core health indicators among nearly 200,000 kids in Southern California throughout the pandemic and found that rates of overweight and obesity rose from roughly 36 percent to 46 percent for 5–11-year-olds.
As Dr. David Katz, former director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, noted in an interview about the study, “We have abundant reason to be engaged in efforts to promote the benefits of good health, including healthy weight.”
Regrettably, the Biden administration could be making matters worse. Last month, President Biden’s Department of Agriculture (USDA) enacted a historic increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by updating the “Thrifty Food Plan.” Prepared by the USDA, this plan is supposed to represent the cost of a “nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet prepared at home for a family of four” and it is used to set SNAP benefit levels. The USDA used a routine reevaluation of the plan to conclude that Americans need more calories in their diets, giving SNAP households 20 percent more money to buy food in the process.
Given the overweight and obesity situation in this country, the decisions by the USDA are scientifically suspect. The figure below highlights a few of the major changes to the Thrifty Food Plan’s “basket of goods” for children age 6–8 between 2006 (when the plan was last updated) and the 2021 update. Similar changes appear for children of other age groups, and close examination reveals some highly questionable decisions.
Take vegetables, for example. The update includes a nearly two-pound increase in vegetable consumption for kids age 6–8 per week. But the bump in vegetables is largely driven by a 1.7 pound per week increase in a nutritional category mostly comprised of potatoes (referred to as “potato products” in 2006 and “starchy vegetables” in 2021). The 2021 plan does not offer justification for this change, nor does it address the reason for a decrease in dark-green vegetables. Undoubtedly, potatoes are cheaper and more calorie dense than leafy vegetables. Potatoes also have a robust industry lobby, which has involved itself in federal food policy before.
The protein allocation in the plan raises similar questions.
The 2021 update slashed non-poultry meat by nearly two-thirds, quadrupled
poultry, and more than doubled seafood and eggs in the recommended “basket” for
children ages 6–8. For justification, the plan simply stated:
“The total protein foods
recommendation has not changed since the Thrifty Food Plan, 2006 was published;
however, the inclusion of seafood as a protein foods subgroup recommendation
results in a redistribution of other protein foods.”
Perhaps the most concerning aspect to the updated Thrifty Food Plan, however, is that it anticipates an “increase of about 600 calories per day” for a family of four “(200 calories each for the children and for the adult male),” to “reflect current realities.” While it may be true that Americans are eating more calories than they were in 2006, research shows that children already consume too many calories. Moreover, the last time SNAP benefit amounts increased (i.e., the 2009 stimulus package), SNAP households were actually less likely to improve their diet than comparable non-SNAP households.
The main flaw, though, is that the Thrifty Food Plan is completely untethered from the foods that families enrolled in SNAP actually purchase. For example, SNAP recipients spend a far greater share of their food budget on “sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar” than the plan affords. It is reasonable to conclude that higher SNAP benefits will mean more spending on these products, which are main contributors to obesity, because nothing in the program prevents it.
Proponents of larger SNAP benefits have long suggested more money will translate to healthier diets. But childhood obesity rose between 2000 and 2019, even as the SNAP program tripled in budget. And we now know that childhood obesity skyrocketed in 2020, even as families received the largest increase in SNAP benefits in history — about 60 percent on average during the pandemic. In the end, obesity and its negative health implications affect a substantially larger share of children than hunger (in fact, only 0.6 percent of households with children report reduced food intake among a child due to affordability problems), making obesity the public health crisis of our generation, not childhood hunger.
Further increasing SNAP benefits without addressing the types of foods households actually purchase is not a nutritional strategy. Let’s hope that President Biden’s USDA starts to take the problem of childhood obesity and poor health more seriously.