SNAP participants in low-income households, especially those that live in food deserts, may not be able to meet the nutrition levels set by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a new study finds.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s largest nutrition program, helping 41 million participants afford “nutritious food essential to health and well-being.”

The case study set out to examine whether SNAP participants would be able to afford a healthy diet based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ (DGA) recommended nutritional values. The US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services created the DGA to advise Americans on what they should eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease.

“Healthy eating is a critical problem, especially within low-income communities where there’s a combination of economic and geographic constraints making healthy and affordable food less attainable,” says Nitesh Chawla, professor of computer science and engineering and director of the Lucy Family Institute for Data and Society Engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

“Individuals working within these constraints live in food deserts, and they have to consider multiple factors as they make decisions about their family’s diet.”

As a baseline, the researchers used the maximum SNAP allotment offered for a single person in Indiana as of October 2021, which was $250 per month. They divided this amount by day to determine what a person’s daily budget would be. Then the team created a linear programming model that considers product nutrition and price for items available within a nationwide grocery store chain in South Bend.

“We found that people essentially make trade-offs based on the information they have to try to stretch their funds and maximize nutrition,” says Ronald Metoyer, professor of computer science and engineering and vice president and associate provost for teaching and learning.

“Our idea for this study was to use computation to aggregate all of the relevant information (e.g., inventory, prices, and nutritional content) and use optimization to make those choices.”

Researchers took into consideration the cost per serving for a meal and the different diet guidelines for men and women ages 31-50, while also minimizing the cost of the diet however possible. Although they found it was possible to create a realistic woman’s diet that fits the monetary allotment of SNAP and the nutritional needs of the DGA, it was not possible to do the same for men.

The team also analyzed the trade-off between cost and nutritional value specifically for nutrients that Americans tend to overconsume: sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. To do this, they set the DGA’s parameters aside and selected only the cheapest food options to meet the SNAP budget. The researchers found a direct correlation between sodium and cost—as the cost of groceries decreases, the amount of sodium consumed increases.

Read the full article about SNAP food nutrition by Brandi Wampler at Futurity.