Safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP nationally and CalFresh in California, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provide great benefits to families facing economic hardship and food insecurity. However, participation in these programs was lower in California compared to the national average. Nutrition Policy Institute researchers examined the associations of participation in SNAP and receipt of the Earned Income Tax Credit with perceptions of government, welfare stigma, and discrimination among families in California with low incomes. Researchers conducted a cross-sectional survey and interviews involving 497 caregivers of young children in California between August 2020 and May 2021. Study results highlighted that SNAP participants and EITC recipients had greater perceptions of social stigma compared to eligible non-participants in these programs in the beginning of the pandemic. Further, SNAP was associated with program stigma and experiences of discrimination among food-insecure participants. This study suggests that reducing stigma related to safety net program participation is important, and policymakers should consider initiatives to improve messaging and outreach that may help. The study was recently published in the Health Affairs Scholar journal. This study was conducted by Nutrition Policy Institute researchers Richard Pulvera and Wendi Gosliner, along with Kaitlyn Jackson and Rita Hamad of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Lia Fernald with the School of Public Health, University of California Berkeley.
Wendi Gosliner from the Nutrition Policy Institute discussed efforts to enhance population health and nutrition, focusing on eliminating disparities and improving federal food programs in a recent If I Could Change One Thing health policy podcast episode. Highlighting policy amendments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gosliner emphasized the impact on food access, particularly for SNAP, WIC, school meal programs, and expansion of the Child Tax Credit. Stressing the importance of tackling food insecurity and reducing waste, she called for comprehensive interventions in federal nutrition programs. “When we think about growing food, and all of the inputs that are needed to grow food—the energy, the water, the soil, the human labor, the money to harvest it and transport it— then it gets to us, we buy it, we store it, and then we often throw it away," said Gosliner. "The amount of resources that's wasted with each food item that is thrown away is immense. And then not only that, but food, when it's decomposing in landfills, creates methane, which is a greenhouse gas contributor all on its own. So, for so many reasons, having us throwing away a lot of food is incredibly costly.” Gosliner, NPI's director of food policy research and translation, shared insights with co-hosts James Romine and Rocio Flores in season eight, episode one of the podcast. The podcast is produced by the San Diego State University, School of Public Health. Listen online.
In May 2020, running until the end of the 2021-2022 school year, the US Congress authorized the US Department of Agriculture to issue nationwide waivers that allowed all schools to provide universal free school meals to mitigate the impacts of school closures as well as the broader economic challenges faced by families during the COVID-19 emergency. This study aimed to examine parent perceptions about school free meals and whether these perceptions differed by race and ethnicity. In May 2022, 1100 California parents of K-12 students from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and State regions responded to a survey to share their perspectives about school meals during the school year 2021-22. Across all racial and ethnic groups, California parents reported that free school meals offered multiple benefits to families, saving them money, time, and stress, and expressed that the stigma associated with school meals was low. However, parents expressed that there was an area for improvement in the variety, taste, and healthfulness of school meals, where parents of Hispanic and Asian students reported less favorable perceptions of these qualities than parents of White students. This study suggests that there is strong support among parents for free school meals, but further efforts are needed to implement a variety of culturally appropriate school meals and make improvements in their taste and healthfulness. Results from the study were recently published in the Health Affairs Scholar journal. The study was conducted by Nutrition Policy Institute researchers Monica Zuercher, Christina Hecht, Kenneth Hecht, and Dania Orta-Aleman in collaboration with Juliana Cohen, Deborah Olarte, and Leah Chapman from Merrimack College, Punam Ohri-Vachaspati from Arizona State University, Michele Polacsek from the University of New England, Margaret Read from Share Our Strength, Anisha Patel from Stanford Pediatrics, and Marlene Schwartz from the University of Connecticut.
More Americans are now sick with diet-related conditions than are well. In the American Journal of Public Health's special issue on "Policies and Strategies to Increase Equitable Access to Family Nutrition," Lorrene Ritchie and Wendi Gosliner of the Nutrition Policy Institute advocate for bold action to improve the health and diets of all Americans. Their editorial entitled “Bold Action Needed for Equitable Access to Nutrition Assistance by All” along with the supporting research featured in the special issue emphasize that while federal nutrition assistance helps one in four Americans and over half of school-aged children, more needs to be done to address food and financial insecurity and improve the diet and health of Americans. Ritchie and Gosliner suggest that, “Currently the nutrition assistance programs conflate two separate issues, one involving people facing poverty with inadequate resources to secure adequate food and the other involving structural supports to the food system and societal norms that facilitate abundant access to and promotion of relatively cheap and unhealthy options, leading to poor diets being the status quo.” They recommend rethinking nutrition assistance's role in combating poverty, suggesting income and housing support, and separately, restructuring federal nutrition assistance programs to support healthy food consumption for all, like providing school meals for all K-12 students, and restructuring retail food environments to create new healthy norms. The special issue and editorial were published online on December 20, 2023.
A recent study examined how stores' participation in federal assistance programs, such as Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program— commonly known as WIC and SNAP or CalFresh in California—influence the availability and quality of healthy foods in low-income California neighborhoods. The study assessed 731 convenience stores and small markets, and found that stores enrolled in both SNAP and WIC had greater availability of healthy food options and higher quality fresh produce compared to stores participating in neither program. Further, small markets more often carried a broader selection of high-quality fresh produce than convenience stores. The study findings suggest that implementing policies incentivizing store involvement in SNAP and WIC can improve access to healthy foods for low-income individuals. The study recently published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, was conducted by Nutrition Policy Institute researchers Richard Pulvera, Sridharshi Hewawitharana, Hannah Thompson, Wendi Gosliner, and Cindy Leung with the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. The authors thank the staff at the California Department of Public Health's Nutrition and Physical Activity Branch, local health department staff and participating stores, and Gail-Woodward Lopez.