Food Assistance Programs
Each year, the United States invests billions of dollars in food assistance to low income families and children to improve food security and nutrition. Food and Health Policy Institute Director Shelly Ver Ploeg examines how these programs impact food security, food spending, and diet quality. A recently published study of the largest of these programs for which Dr. Ver Ploeg was a co-author, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) examines how the monthly issuance of benefits is related to the prices participants pay for food. The study finds that by the beginning of the fourth week of the benefit month, households pay 20% less on food items. This decline in prices is concentrated among a subset of households with financial constraints and/or a preference for higher-quality foods. In another study, Ver Ploeg and co-authors examined the nutritional quality of foods purchased by SNAP households. The study found that “nutrition-oriented” SNAP households—those who reported they searched for nutrition information online or used nutrition facts panel information—purchased foods of similar dietary quality as those similar non-participating households. Researchers in Health Policy and Management, Dr. Leighton Ku, Dr. Erin Brantley, and Drishti Pillai recently published research on the impact of state expansions of work requirements for SNAP enrollment and benefits. Their study found that work requirements caused about 600,000 participants to lose SNAP benefits from 2013 to 2017 and caused a reduction of about $2.5 billion in federal SNAP benefits in 2017.
Associate Professor Kim Robien has been working with a variety of community partner organizations – DC Greens, DC Central Kitchen, Montgomery County Food Council, Fresh Farm Markets, Wholesome Wave, and DC’s Food Policy Director – to improve access to healthy foods in under-served communities and create healthy and sustainable food environments in DC and the surrounding Chesapeake Food Shed. A key project has been to evaluate the health outcomes of the DC Department of Health’s Produce Plus program, a farmers’ market-based healthy food incentive program for low-income DC residents. During the 2015 Produce Plus season, the research team interviewed Produce Plus program participants at six farmers’ markets across the District to better understand their use of the program. A total of 288 Produce Plus participants were surveyed between June and September 2015. Preliminary analyses indicate that 71% of respondents went to the farmer’s market specifically because of the Produce Plus program, and 85% attended farmer’s markets more frequently because of the program. The majority (77%) spent only the Produce Plus voucher (no other benefits or money). The most common method of transportation to the market was walking (34%), taking the bus (25%), or driving (23%). Almost half (46%) of respondents reported that they had traveled more than 15 minutes to reach the market.
Food Worker Safety
How safe are the people who work to put food on America’s tables? The Milken Institute’s Melissa Perry looks at pesticide exposure and its effects on members of farming communities, agricultural workers and the general public. She also studies risks workers face at meat-packing plants, construction sites, and agricultural operations. A recent publication, for example, examined the role of depression in meat packing injuries. The research findings are proving useful in identifying solutions that improve worker safety at these sites.
Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Allison Sylvetsky, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences, focuses her research on the consumption and health effects of added sugars and artificial sweeteners, with an emphasis on their consumption during childhood. She recently found children who consume low- or zero-calorie drinks, like diet soda, save no more calories than those who drink regular soda and consume more overall calories than those who drink water. She also recently held a seminar series on the impacts of sugar on society, on health, and what people can do individually to reduce sugar consumption.
Many readers today see “Paleo Diet” and immediately think of the recent weight loss and lifestyle diet associated with high protein and low grain eating. Instead, paleoanthropologist and Paleolithic archaeologist Alison Brooks examines the evolution of human behavior by reconstructing ancient diets using microfossils recovered from stone tools and teeth found in well preserved skeletons. The dental work she and her colleagues carried out uncovered plant microfossils and starch granules that indicate Neanderthals consumed a variety of flora, such as palm dates, grains and legumes. Examining the plaque found on the teeth demonstrated the Neanderthals even cooked some of them. The research overturned previous conventional wisdom that the Neanderthals mostly consumed meat by showing that, in fact, they had more complex dietary behavior.
Obesity is a problem in the U.S. and throughout the rest of the world as well. William H. Dietz, co-director of the Food Policy Institute and the director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, is seeking a way to improve nutrition and reduce the extent of the affliction as a way to reduce chronic disease. According to the NIH, more than two-thirds (68.8 percent) of adults are considered to be overweight or obese. More than one-third (35.7 percent) of adults are considered to be obese. More than 1 in 20 (6.3 percent) have extreme obesity. Almost 3 in 4 men (74 percent) are considered to be overweight or obese. These conditions increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. However recent studies show incidence of the disease seems to be dropping among young children, possibly due to changes in the school lunch program, initiatives adopted by the Obama Administration, and dropping soda consumption in children. Thanks to a greater awareness of the problem, the private sector is making changes. McDonalds, for example, no longer serves soda with its Happy Meals.
Farming in Uganda
Economist Stephen Smith’s analysis of a large-scale agricultural extension program for smallholder women farmers in Uganda demonstrated that it significantly increased agricultural production, savings and wage income, and generally improved food security. The gains mainly resulted from increased use of improved cultivation methods that are relatively costless. Among the techniques are better uses of manure, intercropping, crop rotation, irrigation, weeding, fertilizer, pesticides and seeds. These results highlight the role of improved basic methods in boosting agricultural productivity among poor farmers.
Conflict Free Chocolate
Is the chocolate you eat and love so much free of forced labor? School of Business Prof. John Forrer has organized a group of students to look into the matter. His team is examining how cacao (beanlike seeds from which cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate are made) is grown, harvested and then works its way through global supply chains, finally converted into the chocolate bars, candies, and deserts people crave. A challenge for people who do not want to buy chocolate made with forced labor is the lack of awareness about which chocolates they buy are or are not conflict-free. A challenge for firms seeking to offer their customers conflict-free chocolate is the lack of knowledge about the sources of the cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate they buy from their suppliers. The research is developing models and analytic tools that do a better job of identifying global sources of cacao that don’t involve forced labor. Ultimately, the research contributes to helping companies demonstrate to their customers that they are using sustainable supply chains and providing products that meet an increasing demand for socially responsible goods.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) come up for renewal every five years. In the 2015 review process, the advisory committee for the DGAs recommended including sustainability in the guidelines, to reflect the interrelated nature of diet, sustainability, and public health. In November of 2014, the Collaborative hosted the first DGAs symposium, called “The Sustainable Plate.” In October 2015, Collaborative Director Kathleen Merrigan, along with GW colleagues Kim Robien and William Dietz and Tufts colleagues Parke Wilde, Timothy Griffin and Jeanne Goldberg, published “Designing a Sustainable Diet” in the journal Science. Merrigan et al. also published follow up articles in The Conversation and in Health Affairs.
The buzz around GW is coming from an obvious source: honey bees. GWBuzz is a research team focusing on different aspects of honeybee life and health. The group, led by biologist and insect ecologist Hartmut E. Doebel, currently maintains 12 hives on the rooftop of Lisner Hall on the Foggy Bottom campus. The research group works to promote sustainable and healthy apiculture in the midst of Washington DC with the partnership of Founding Farmers Restaurant, which buys the honey from the hives to use in their craft cocktails. The hives show the campus community and the broader public the importance of bees in their everyday lives. . Students learn about bees by working with the campus hives, and have even had to deal with real world problems, such as colony collapse disorder. The support from Founding Farms has greatly increased the number of hives that the group can keep on campus. Ultimately, the researchers hope to understand the impact of urbanization on flora and fauna. They are asking questions like: Are urban honeybee hives healthier overall compared to hives kept in rural areas? And, do bees feeding on better, healthier pollen and nectar fight parasites and pathogens with greater success? For more information, meet the students who participate on the Bee Team!