NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Federal Feeding Programs Making the Poor Fat

January 27, 2003

The poor in America are far more likely to be at risk of death and disease because of overeating than starvation. Yet federal food programs continue to focus on high calorie intakes, instead of teaching healthy eating habits.

Few experts are willing to say that federal feeding programs are helping to make the poor fat, although the evidence points in that direction. About 65 percent of all Americans are overweight, and nearly half of those are obese. The estimates place the rates of the poor at 5 to 10 percent higher.

To exacerbate the situation, we help the overweight poor by spending $18 billion annually on food stamps, $8 billion on school breakfasts and lunches and $5 billion on WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

  • In 2002, food stamps served about 20 million people a month, providing up to $465 per month for a household of four.
  • WIC provides food vouchers and counseling to more than 7 million children and mothers each month.
  • The free monthly food packages are worth about $120 for infants and postpartum mothers, and about $35 for each child from ages one through four.

WIC's nutritional counseling program is the biggest disappointment. In addition to food packages, the program is supposed to provide nutritional advice. In practice, counselors spend an average of about 15 minutes with mothers every three months, hardly enough to make any real difference, particularly because many other topics must be covered during those sessions, including -- pursuant to congressional mandate -- voter registration.

Advocates are still pushing to get more families on WIC. But nearly 50 percent of all newborns are already enrolled in the program, whose eligibility guidelines are quite lenient.

Source: Douglas J. Besharov, "We're Feeding the Poor as if They're Starving," American Enterprise Institute, December 2002.

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