UC Davis Agricultural and Resource Economics

Joanna MacEwan, University of California, Davis

The Effect of the Food Stamp Program on Energy Balance and Obesity

Date and Location

Thursday, January 27, 2011, 12:10 PM - 1:30 PM


The Food Stamp Program (FSP) (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has functioned as the mainstay of U.S. food assistance programs for over forty years. The FSP aims to prevent households from becoming food insecure and experiencing inadequate intake of energy and essential nutrients from foods. In 2010, 40.3 million Americans (13 percent of the population) participated, receiving an average FSP benefit of $134 per person per month. Paralleling the introduction and evolution of the FSP, the past three decades have witnessed marked increases in the numbers of Americans who are overweight or obese. Given the scale of the FSP, and the national spotlight on obesity, the economic, nutritional, and health consequences of the FSP have been the subject of many studies. However, it has proven very difficult to determine clearly whether the additional income provided to households as FSP benefits has caused excess consumption of calories and weight gain. Using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2004 (NHANES03-04) we develop a four-equation empirical model to test the hypothesis that participation in the FSP affects obesity, and investigate which pathways may link participation and obesity. We do not find convincing evidence for the hypothesis that FSP participation causes obesity by causing an increase in caloric consumption, a decrease in physical activity, or some combination of the two. Our findings suggest that a positive association between FSP and weight exists, but we find no evidence of a direct causal link from one to the other. The association between weight and FSP likely results from confounding factors that make individuals more likely to both gain weight and participate in the FSP. This paper contributes to that literature by providing new evidence on the links between the FSP and obesity, and new insights into the previous literature. It also contributes to better-informed policymaking in an important area of current policy debate.

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