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Food Subsidies Key to Food Security Programs, Access to Nutritious Food

Once shoppers stopped qualifying for WIC, they were not able to buy food deemed more nutritious, outlining a key quality for food security programs.

If your food security program doesn’t offer subsidies, you’re doing it wrong, one new study in Marketing Science found.

When faced with the choice to buy healthier foods or cheaper foods, consumers nearly always went with the cheaper foods. This serves as a critical insight for social services and healthcare organizations targeting food security as a social determinant of health.

Food insecurity is a leading SDOH because there’s both a direct link to certain diet-related illnesses, like diabetes or heart disease, and because there is an obvious solution to the problem. Patients reporting food insecurity may be enrolled in a food voucher program, referred to a food pantry, or even provided counseling on a more nutritious diet.

As researchers work to refine those social services, this latest study provides crucial insights. It’s the cost of healthier foods that makes them less unattainable to some populations, meaning that food security programs need to do something to address the cost of food. Moreover, the research indicated that expanding access to food vouchers, like SNAP and WIC, will be essential.

The researchers, led by Marit Hinnosaar of the University of Nottingham and Centre for Economic Policy Research in London, looked at how consumers shopped for food while they were enrolled in WIC (the U.S. Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and after their enrollment in that program ceased. WIC is specifically tailored for the purchase of bread and milk, restricting the use of food vouchers for whole wheat bread and low-fat milk.

By using NielsenIQ household-level scanner data of grocery purchases, Hinnosaar and her team were able to analyze whether WIC recipients continued to shop for those more nutritious bread and milk options even after they stop qualifying for the program (kids and mothers are eligible for WIC until the child turns five).

“During the incentive program, vouchers were restricted to whole wheat bread and low-fat milk,” Hinnosaar explained in a public statement. “Since some of these options tend to be more expensive, once the vouchers were no longer available for these products, consumers tended to choose items based on price.”

The researchers found that after a few years post-WIC, families began buying the lower-cost—and in many cases less nutritious—food options.

The team stressed that families were still able to do their grocery shopping after their enrollment in WIC was over. They typically purchased the same amount of groceries even after they were no longer eligible for WIC, the researchers found. The most common food items purchased included bread, milk, fruits and vegetables, juice, eggs, and cereal.

However, the nutritional value of the food was lower.

All said, these findings indicate that offering subsidies is crucial to ensuring low-income populations are able to obtain nutritious food.

“Based on these findings, it is possible to conclude that a modest post-program subsidy once program participants leave the program – to incentivize healthier food choices – may be a more sustainable way to lengthen the program’s impact and lead to long-term healthier food purchases,” the authors said in the statement.

These findings come as the nation zeroes in on food insecurity as a social determinant of health. In September 2022, the White House outlined a strategic plan for addressing food as an SDOH, highlighting the impact poor diet can have on certain disease states.

“When families can’t afford healthy food options, it’s harder for children to succeed in school, and it can lead to mental and physical health challenges for the whole family,” President Joe Biden wrote in the strategy’s introduction.

“For so many families—including families of color, those living in rural communities and territories, and low-income families—structural inequality, such as disparities in educational and economic opportunities and lack of access to health care, safe housing, and transportation, make the impact of hunger and diet-related diseases even more severe.”

The five-pillar plan includes efforts to expand SNAP and free school meals, improve access to medically tailored meals, create transparency for nutritional value for items included in SNAP, increasing physical activity, and expanding research into diet and health.

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