Food obtained for free at school or work makes up an important part of the nutrition safety net for low-income households in the U.S., but much of it is of low nutritional quality, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study was published online October 13, 2021 in PLOS One.
Using data from the National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey, the researchers found that more than one fifth of participants’ “food acquisition events”—which could include anything from a home-cooked meal to office doughnuts—were free. Households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits had more free acquisition events than those that were not receiving the benefits.
The researchers scored each event using the 2010 Healthy Eating Index. For children on SNAP, food acquired for free at school scored higher—meaning that it was healthier—than food purchased at school or brought from home. All food acquisition events at work received relatively low scores, with no differences by employees’ SNAP status.
“One way for people to make healthier choices is for the institutions that provide free food to improve the nutritional quality of the foods they offer,” first author Aviva Musicus, a postdoctoral research fellow, said in an October 15 UPI story.