NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

U.S. Food and Nutrition Programs: Costs, Effectiveness and Impact on Obesity

April 24, 2012

Currently, the U.S. government's numerous food and nutrition programs (FANPs) together reach about one out of every four Americans every day and cost about $100 billion per year.  These programs have at their heart three broad goals, says Julian M. Alston of the American Enterprise Institute.

  • To assure adequate nutrient intake in populations deemed to be at risk of subpar nutrition.
  • To improve recipients' nutritional choices through nutrition education regarding food balance and diverse vitamin and mineral consumption.
  • To provide a uniform, minimum, nationwide threshold below which assistance cannot fall, adjusting for differences among and within states.

To obtain these ends, the United States operates 15 FANPs with niche purposes.  Together, these programs offer a broad network of assistance and education that create a comprehensive safety net for the country's at-risk population.

Of particular interest are three such programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

  • SNAP provides coupons that participants can redeem for food with few restrictions.
  • WIC offers coupons that women, infants and children certified to be at nutritional risk can redeem only for specific types of food.
  • NSLP provides free or reduced-price meals directly to their target population that conform to certain nutritional guidelines.
  • In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture spent nearly $86 billion on these three program, accounting for 91 percent of total spending on FANPs.

In assessing the health outcomes of these programs, studies have reached wildly varying conclusions, yet most agree that they have been mildly successful at raising health outcomes and achieving the goals for which they were created.  However, it is difficult to say whether these goals have been reached in an economically efficient way.

Source: Julian M. Alston, "U.S. Food and Nutrition Programs: Costs, Effectiveness, and Impact on Obesity," American Enterprise Institute, April 11, 2012.

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