Rethinking U.S. Food Policy: Forum Highlights Evidence, Policy Options
"Most of us here today don’t worry about going to bed hungry. Unfortunately, this is the reality for 48 million people each year" — Mary Joel Holin, vice president of Social and Economic Policy, Abt Associates
What can be done to prevent low-income children from going hungry during the summer months when they can’t get a meal at school? Can food assistance to low-income families improve children’s diets? Can financial incentives encourage those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to eat more fruits and vegetables?
On February 2, Abt Associates and the Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM) convened the nation’s top researchers, advocates and policy officials to answer these and other questions during a forum on rethinking food assistance policy in the United States. The event highlighted evidence — in particular, two recent studies by Abt Associates— with relevance for ongoing discussions about the effectiveness of food assistance in promoting food security and nutrition.
“Most of us here today don’t worry about going to bed hungry. Unfortunately, this is the reality for 48 million people each year,” Mary Joel Holin, vice president of Social and Economic Policy at Abt Associates, told the crowd.
Abt Senior Fellow Jacob Klerman presents new evidence on the impact of food assistance and food security in the Summer EBT for Children (SEBTC) demonstrations.
The Impact of Food Assistance on Food Expenditures and Food Insecurity
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University opened the event by describing current food assistance programs and the dual challenges of food insecurity and obesity. She was followed by the first panel, led by Melissa Abelev of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which presented new evidence on the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children (SEBTC) demonstration. The program provided food assistance to school-aged children during the summer when school is out through electronic benefit transfer systems used by SNAP and WIC programs. The evaluation, led by Abt Associates, tested impacts of a $60 per child monthly benefit compared to no benefit, or a $30 per child monthly benefit compared to a $60 per child benefit.
"The SEBTC demonstration reduced very low food security among children by one-third and also improved all other measures of household food security as well as school-age children’s nutritional intake." — Jacob Klerman, Senior Fellow, Abt Associates
Abt Associates Senior Fellow Jacob Klerman discussed evidence from this demonstration on food spending and whether it helped to reduce very low food security among children. The SEBTC demonstration reduced very low food security among children by one-third and also improved all other measures of household food security as well as school-age children’s nutritional intake. Tim Beatty of the University of California, Davis, then described the contribution of the SEBTC demonstration to the larger literature on the impact of government food assistance on food expenditures and food insecurity.
How Can Food Assistance Programs Improve Nutrition?
A second panel, led by Danielle Berman of FNS, examined how government food assistance programs can improve nutrition for low-income households. Park Wilde of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University shared research led by Abt Associates about how a rebate for SNAP participants through the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) helped people eat more fruit and vegetables. The evaluation found that HIP increased fruit and vegetable consumption of program participants by 26 percent. Mathematica Policy Research Senior Fellow Philip Gleason examined the effects of limiting choice in food assistance programs. He highlighted evidence from SEBTC that found that summer food assistance helped improve the eating habits of children, increasing their consumption of healthful foods and reducing added sugars from sweetened beverages. When SEBTC was provided as a food package based on the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), there were greater improvements in children’s diets than when SEBTC was provided as a less restrictive benefit based on SNAP.
Joanne Guthrie of the USDA’s Economic Research Service spoke about how the lessons of HIP and SEBTC contribute to knowledge about how to improve nutrition among low-income households. She compared the effects of an incentive like HIP with those of a voucher for healthy foods similar to SEBTC, and discussed insights from behavioral economics on how the form of food assistance may affect nutritional impacts.
Ron Haskins, co-director, the Brookings Center on Children and Families (right) directs a question to Robert Doar of American Enterprise Institute (left) during a panel discussion on how new evidence on food assistance can inform policy.
From Evidence to Policy
The final panel, moderated by Ron Haskins, Co-Director, Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, explored the implications of HIP, SEBTC, and other recent studies for rethinking U.S. food assistance policy. Haskins was joined by Sandra E. Black, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers; Stacy Dean, Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Robert Doar, the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and Tracy Fox, President, Food, Nutrition Policy Consultants. Panelists discussed what implications the studies may have for government spending on food programs and possible changes to the programs.
“SNAP reduces hunger and has long-term benefits. It's an investment that pays off,” Sandra Black told the audience. “These kinds of studies are really important for policymakers to know what to do.”
Chis Hamilton, Abt emeritus, closed the event by reflecting on the importance of having results of two large random assignment studies of food assistance programs. “There is a particular opportunity for the policy community to revere and respect evidence … and to make sure that it does get applied to policy.”
Read Policy Briefs:
- Healthy Incentives Pilot Evaluation
- The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (SEBTC) Demonstration Program: 2012 Results
- The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (SEBTC) Demonstration Program: 2013 Results
Read more about this event:
Read Speakers' Featured Presentations:
- Overview: Trends in Household Food Insecurity - Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach
- Additional Food Assistance, Food Expenditures and Food Security? Evidence from SEBTC - Jacob Alex Klerman
- Putting the SEBTC Evidence in the Larger Research Context - Timothy K.M. Beatty
- How Much Does a SNAP Rebate Increase Fruit and Vegetable Consumption? - Park Wilde
- Does Limiting Choice in Food Assistance Programs Affect Dietary Quality Among School-Aged Children? - Phil Gleason
- How Do the Lessons of HIP and SEBTC Contribute to Our Knowledge About How to Improve Nutrition Among Low-Income Households? - Joanne Guthrie
Read more about Abt’s work in food assistance and nutrition in the U.S.: