UNE sharing $2.5 million to study impact of COVID-era nutritional assistance policies

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The grant will bring over $660,000 in research funds to UNE over four years.

The University of New England will share over $2.5 million in grant funding to study the nutritional impact of pandemic-era food assistance policies in low-income and rural populations.

The research grant funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research, one of the National Institutes of Health, will see UNE’s Center for Excellence in Public Health (CEPH) collaborating with researchers from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute (HPHCI), Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan School), and Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General), all of whom are sub-contractors on the grant.

Michele Polacsek, Ph.D., M.P.H., CEPH director and professor of public health at UNE, will oversee UNE’s involvement as co-investigator of the project, which will bring over $660,000 in research funds to UNE through CEPH over four years.

The study, “Impact of the Expiration of Temporary Pandemic SNAP Benefits on the Healthfulness of Supermarket Food Purchases,” will evaluate the effects of ending emergency allotments in COVID-19-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits on the healthfulness of participant food purchases.

SNAP provides financial benefits for grocery purchases to nearly 42 million lower-income individuals in the U.S. and is a vital source of food assistance for health disparity populations, including rural households, Black and Hispanic households, and households with low economic stability, such as those experiencing poverty or unemployment.  

SNAP benefits increased substantially starting in March 2020, driven primarily by temporary, emergency supplemental benefits to bolster food security in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure participants could afford a healthy diet. These emergency benefits expired nationally in March 2023, a policy change that is estimated to have reduced benefits by an average of $175 per household, or a 33% decline.

Polacsek said the research project aims to identify how this policy change has contributed to potential inequities across populations from historically underserved communities and explore how concurrent socioecological factors have influenced food choices.

“The sudden end of SNAP emergency allotments represents the largest-ever universal reduction in SNAP benefits and could change participants’ food purchasing patterns in ways that adversely affect their health,” Polacsek said. “This benefit cliff could drive households to reduce total food purchased, make unhealthy substitutions, or select less healthy foods to cope with increased stress. These effects may be worse for rural, Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged households due to existing structural inequities that make it harder for these populations to access and afford healthy foods.”

These populations bear a disproportionate burden of nutrition-related chronic disease, Polascek added, stating that the cessation of emergency benefits may widen existing health disparities. Research is needed, she said, to evaluate these effects on the nutritional quality of participants’ food purchases both overall and across these historically underserved communities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing broad policy changes during and after the pandemic emergency presented a unique opportunity for us to study what impacts these national policies actually had on some of the most vulnerable families in the nation,” she said. “We hope our study finding will help improve national nutrition assistance policies to better serve those who need it most.”

Leading the study is Joshua Petimar, Sc.D., a research associate in population medicine at HPHCI and Harvard Medical School (HMS). Additional co-investigators include Anne Thorndike, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of medicine at Mass General and HMS; Eric Rimm Sc.D., professor in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard Chan School; Jason Block, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of population medicine at HPHCI and HMS; and Fang Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of population medicine at HPHCI and HMS.

Michele Polacsek, Ph.D., M.P.H.