August is recognized by nutrition organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as “Family Meals Month,” which highlights the benefits of planning healthy family meals.
In keeping with this theme, University of Houston Health and Human Performance assistant professor Daphne Hernandez and several UH honors students are releasing the results of a nutrition experiment and data analysis, conducted as part of Hernandez’s nutrition policy honors course.
For one week earlier this year, Hernandez and 10 UH students— a mix of nutrition, kinesiology and biology majors— each limited themselves to a total food budget of $25 per person. Each took detailed notes and recorded data as they participated in what is often called ‘The Food Stamp Challenge,’ where activists participate in similar exercises to draw attention to pressures faced by low-income Americans. The $25 allocation was chosen because it is the average weekly amount available for a single adult eligible for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which served 47 million low-income people in 2013. A University-funded grant provided the participants with a $25 grocery store gift card to use for the week.
“This exercise was important because it gave me firsthand experience as to how difficult it is to maintain a healthy diet while on SNAP,” said UH student participant Laurianne Dib.
Hernandez is a Ph.D. trained in developmental psychology, poverty and public policy. Her research has focused on issues like food insecurity, food assistance program participation, and how family factors and participation in public assistance programs influence child and adult health.
“Most striking to me was that I did not meet the recommended target caloric intake, along with the recommended target intake for all the food groups,” said Hernandez. “I did have extra food at the end of the challenge that I could have eaten, but the uncertainty of not knowing if the food would last for the entire week stopped me.”
The group’s detailed data analysis found that despite being knowledgeable about nutrition, Hernandez and the honors students were not able to meet government-recommended nutrition guidelines during the week they limited themselves to $25 in food.
“Each individual was informed of what choices to make when shopping under these conditions, yet we were all still undereating and deficient in so many nutrients,” said participant Denny Dao, a UH nutrition major who took part in analyzing the data. “It makes me wonder how deficient a less–informed, impoverished family would be compared to us.”
The analysis raised concerns that food stamp recipients could face possible iron deficiency, anemia, potassium deficiency, weak muscles, raised blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, lack of proper calcium or vitamin D, bone issues, vitamin C deficiency, extreme weakness, lack of proper fiber, and digestion or weight control issues. The analysis also noted concern that the participants did not meet the government’s average target values when it came to the food groups of grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy.
“It was an important exercise, because it shined light on the food insecurity issue,” Hernandez said. “Health professionals and the overall public should be aware of the poor diet quality consumed by SNAP participants. The SNAP allotment provided to families is often not enough to provide all family members with a nutrient-dense diet that will allow them to live healthy and active lifestyles.”
The group believes their data implies there is a need for mandatory nutritional education to be incorporated into the SNAP program, everything from educating participants on good eating behaviors to providing regular cooking and grocery shopping workshops to fostering more community gardens.