Young studying how poor families can eat healthy to lower risk of chronic disease

Sabrina Young has read all the research.

Throughout her years of study in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s health policy and administration doctoral program, she has learned that a poor diet has been linked to obesity and other chronic diseases such as cancer. What she hasn’t yet discovered, but is working diligently to learn, is how money from a federally funded government assistance program can help patients meet their nutritional needs to prevent diseases, and to support their recovery should they contract an illness.

“Food security – where people have reliable access to plenty of affordable, nutritious food – and a healthful diet are important factors in cancer prevention and economic stability,” said Young, who was awarded a Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund her research. “I want to understand how the amount of money recipients receive from the SNAP program changes a person’s ability to pay for and eat a sufficient and healthful diet during the month, and which families are most vulnerable and most affected by benefit levels.”

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps, is a federal program that provides a monthly stipend for needy individuals and families to buy nutritious food and move them towards self-sufficiency. Groceries are purchased through a debit card that is provided by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program.

A recipient is given an allotment that is calculated by first determining the household’s monthly net income, taking gross income and subtracting a number of deductions for household expenses. Since households are expected to spend about 30% of their own resources on food, allotments are then calculated by multiplying the household’s monthly income by 0.3, and subtracting the result from the maximum monthly allotment for the household’s size. Currently, a household with two adults, three children and no income can receive a maximum monthly benefit of $768. However, due to reportable income and other factors, the average five-person household receives significantly less – $528.

During her research, Young is also identifying the subgroups – by race/ethnicity; households led by females; and households whose occupants include individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity – most impacted by SNAP dollar amounts during the monthly SNAP benefit cycle. Her preliminary findings suggest that households qualifying for maximum SNAP benefits do not experience different levels of food security, compared to those households that are slightly below the maximum level.

“These questions are key for policymakers and non-profit organizations when targeting cancer prevention efforts,” said Young, who graduates with her PhD in August and has secured a job as a research agricultural economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “Our findings have the potential to inform decisions to better support low-income families in maintaining a sufficient, healthy diet for prevention of chronic disease and reducing cancer risk.”

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