Do food assistance programs deliver more than food and nutrition? Can relieving the stress of food insecurity provide positive psychological benefits as well? A new study says yes it can.
In a study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers set out to examine whether participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as food stamps, was associated with better overall well-being and specifically, lower rates of psychological distress. In analyzing data from the SNAP Food Security survey, the largest longitudinal survey of SNAP beneficiaries to date, they found participating in the food assistance program did indeed decrease levels of psychological distress. Study authors Vanessa Oddo and James Mabli write:
Although research is limited, participation in food assistance programs may be particularly effective in modifying the relationship between food insecurity and mental illness. Certain nutrients, overall diet quality, and patterns of dietary intake may be important in reducing the prevalence of adverse mental health outcomes. By reducing households’ exposure to food insufficiency, federal nutrition programs, such as SNAP, may improve well-being by reducing the public health burden of mental illness among vulnerable populations.
In particular, the study found that psychological distress was less common among heads of households who had participated in SNAP for at least six months than among those who had just enrolled in the program — the percentages were 15.3 percent versus just more than 23 percent. Overall, the findings suggest that SNAP is associated with a 38 percent reduction in psychological distress among participating households.
In addition to improving food security, the researchers wrote that SNAP likely alleviates psychological distress by allowing beneficiaries to direct their limited incomes on basic needs outside of food, such as housing, utilities and health care. In other words, SNAP can help lessen a family’s financial strain and often provides a vital stepping stone for families struggling to get by in the current economy. The authors noted that their findings align with previous research on food assistance programs and improved mental health among adults.
“In light of the sizable variation in the monthly allotment of SNAP benefits across households, future studies should explore the role of benefit size on improving the well-being of program participants,” the study authors wrote. “In addition, a better understanding of the most effective pathways through which SNAP affects mental health and thus well-being in subpopulations of interest, including households with children or elderly persons, is warranted to inform future policy and intervention strategies.”
In 2014, SNAP helped more than 46 million low-income Americans struggling with food insecurity and hunger, with about 70 percent of SNAP participants living in families with children. Unfortunately, even though SNAP remains the country’s most critical anti-hunger initiative and has a solid track record of improving health outcomes and keeping people out of poverty, it’s regularly targeted for funding cuts. Just recently, members of the House proposed spending reductions that could cut off millions of families from food assistance.
To request a full copy of the SNAP and mental health study, visit the American Journal of Public Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
This is in line with findings from the Oregon Health Study, which found adults gaining Medicaid coverage to experience better self-reported mental health and well-being, and lower observed rates of depression.
Of course, it makes intuitive sense that worrying less about food costs and medical bills will improve mental health, but it's extremely valuable to have peer-reviewed research to support the hypothesis!