Reducing Food Insecurity

Last week, I mentioned the new USDA report on food insecurity.  I also mentioned a WSJ editorial by James Bovard arguing that food stamps don't reduce food insecurity because the number of people enrolled in food stamps has risen dramatically while food insecurity remains essentially unchanged.

I noted that we don't know the counterfactual (i.e., how much food insecurity would have changed had enrollment in food stamps not increased).  And, I also noted that there is some good academic research on the relationship on food insecurity and food stamp participation.

One of the big problems with trying to tease out the link between these two is that they are jointly determined.  That is, I may enroll in food stamps precisely because I'm food insecure. This sort of selection effect will make it look like being on food stamps is associated with food insecurity, but clearly this is just correlation, not causation.

Here is a careful paper published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association that tries to get at the issue:

Under the weakest restrictions, there is substantial ambiguity; we cannot rule out the possibility that SNAP increases or decreases poor health. Under stronger but plausible assumptions used to address the selection and classification error problems, we find that commonly cited relationships between SNAP and poor health outcomes provide a misleading picture about the true impacts of the program. Our tightest bounds identify favorable impacts of SNAP on child health.

One of the measures of "child health" is food insecurity, and this research seems to suggest null to positive effects of food stamp participation and child food insecurity.  

A lot of the discussion on the web related to the USDA report seems to be wrapped up in ideological baggage associated with beliefs about the desirability of cutting or expanding the food stamp program (or, for example, utilizing work requirements).  Those who would like to reduce the size and scope of the food stamp program often try to argue that food stamps do not reduce food insecurity and may actually increase it.  My view is that the best analysis doesn't support such an argument.  There may be other good reasons for reducing the size of the food stamp program, but the food security argument isn't one of them.  

Another argument I made in my previous post was that technological development that leads to lower food prices seems a comparatively good strategy for reducing food insecurity.  

As such, I was intrigued to see this white paper by Graig Gundersen at the University of Illinois on food insecurity.  One of the five drivers he discusses to reduce food insecurity is to focus on the importance of low food prices.  

He also writes, when discussing, what food groups can do (or perhaps what they shouldn't do):

Third, they can view proposals encouraging organic foods and local foods with skepticism. While proposals to encourage, say, local food procurement by supermarkets can have ancillary benefits, these benefits do not generally extend to low-income households because they cannot afford these items. Instead, the benefits are more likely to extend to upper-income households that can afford these items. Moreover, by devoting scarce resources to encouraging the entrance of these into the food supply chain, this diverts resources away from factors that would help low-income households.