More than 46 million people receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly called the food stamp program — to purchase food staples like milk, bread, vegetables, and meat.
Recent research has shown that a typical family receiving SNAP benefits falls short of meeting basic nutritional recommendations, despite having sufficient monetary resources to eat a healthy diet.
As it turns out, time trumps money when trying to achieve nutritional targets, according to Wen You, associate professor of health economics and applied econometrics, and her colleague George C. Davis, professor of health economics and applied econometrics.
“The current SNAP benefit calculation doesn’t specifically take into consideration the time it takes someone to actually cook a meal,” You said. “A single-headed household with the household head working more than one full-time job will struggle to find enough time to shop and cook a healthy meal from scratch.”
You and Davis found that nearly 100 percent of the SNAP participants are “time poor,” which means they do not spend enough time in home meal production — including meal planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning up — to reach the nutrition goals intended by the SNAP program. The program’s underlying assumption is that the benefit amount will be sufficient for participants to procure low-cost ingredients and produce a nutritious meal.
The researchers have shown that ignoring the time needed for home meal production overestimated the effectiveness of the SNAP program in terms of nutritional goal attainment: about 85 percent of single-headed households produced fewer meals than intended by the Thrifty Food Plan (the base for SNAP benefit calculation). They further calculated the degree of substitution between money and time and confirmed that it is difficult to substitute money for time in home meal production.
You and Davis’ research opens the debate on health and nutrition policy, citing evidence that interventions and policy that focus on monetary resources alone may not be as effective. For example, recent interventions aimed at providing SNAP participants with financial incentives, such as extra SNAP benefits to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets, may not achieve the desired behavioral changes.
Increasing affordability of fresh produce is good, but unless participants know what to do with it, how to cook it, and have the time and transportation help to go to the markets, they won’t take advantage of this benefit.
— Wen You
Associate professor of health economics and applied econometrics
SNAP-Ed can target the delivery of more education materials that feature time-efficient recipes and information about fresh produce accessibility in recipients’ neighborhoods.
Davis emphasizes that money is only one component of eating healthfully. “To reach a nutritional standard, you have to spend a certain amount of time,” said Davis. “Time does affect your health. If we want people to become healthier, we need to figure out how to make the Thrifty Food Plan less time-intensive.”