Attempts to make SNAP healthier have done nothing to help the poorest people eat better, study finds

Americans who receive financial assistance for food have some of the poorest diets in the US, new research reveals. 

More than 42 million Americans get monthly allocations to help them buy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

One of the program’s goals is to help Americans with low incomes gain access to healthier meals, but the latest statistics suggest that people in SNAP are still not getting the nutrition they need. 

According to the new data from Tufts University, these Americans have consistently had bad diets for the last 15 years, and the poorest people are eating the worst food.

More than 42 million Americans get financial assistance for groceries through SNAP – once called food stamps – but their diets are nearly devoid of fruits and vegetables, study finds 

SNAP – historically called food stamps – makes a clear distinction on its website that it is not a welfare program but rather a nutritional one. 

Anyone whose income is at the poverty line in the US will likely be eligible for a monthly debit card that food items can be charged to. 

Each person gets about $30 a week from the US Department of Agriculture. 

The card cannot be used to buy alcohol, tobacco or household products, but other than those restrictions, people in the SNAP program can use the money as they please at grocery stores, convenience stores and farmers’ markets. 

Without any nutritional stipulations, the new research, published in JAMA Network Open, suggests that while the program may be helping people eat, it isn’t exactly helping them to eat well. 

People using the SNAP program are still eating far too much salt, raising their risks for high blood pressure and heart disease. 

The American Heart Association has set a number of ‘Strategic Impact Goals’ for diets. By 2020, the group wants Americans to get their blood pressures, weights and cholesterol levels down and get their physical activity up.     

Meeting these goals means not just cutting fatty and carb-heavy items from diets, but getting better  


The Western diet is loosely defined as one full of fatty and sugary foods, such as burgers, fries and soda.  

People often eat foods that are high in

  • Saturated fats
  • Red meats
  • ‘Empty’ carbohydrates
  • Junk Food

And low in

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Whole Grains
  • Seafood 
  • Poultry 

Health effects have been linked to things such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer and dementia. 

Poor health and low income often go hand-in-hand, and this is driven in part by bad nutrition. 

According to the new study, people in the SNAP program are getting a fraction of the fruits and vegetables they should. 

Diets designed to reduce the risk of high blood pressure call for people to eat between seven and nine servings a day of each, which comes out to around two cups of fruit and 2.5 to three cups of vegetables.

Higher income SNAP recipients only get two servings of each a day – less than a quarter of the recommended intake – and lower income recipients only eat an average of 1.3 servings of fruits and veggies. 

Even with financial assistance, for many Americans, healthy food is not just hard to afford, its nearly impossible to find.

Currently, 23.5 million people live in areas that qualify as ‘food deserts.’ 

These regions have few or no grocery stores or other locations to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and whole foods. 

About half of those living in food deserts also have low incomes, a double hit to their overall risks for poor health. 

For millions of Americans who struggle to afford food at all, simply having assistance getting anything to eat is, bottom line, the most important help SNAP can give them. 

However, the new findings led the study authors to suggest that the SNAP program should perhaps provide incentives for buying fruits and vegetables, and de-incentivize unhealthy foods.