Researchers often treat food-insecure households as optimizers, said Sonya Jones, assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior at the University of South Carolina. These households work hard to save their money, they do the best they can when they have shortfalls, and they are rational in their decisions.

A better way to think about these families may be through the lens provided by the recent book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). Subtle clues in society and the environment, such as putting more healthful foods in the front of a buffet or rearranging the items in supermarkets, can influence choices in important ways. “We need to challenge ourselves to be more expansive than a traditional, economic maximizing approach in thinking about food insecurity,” said Jones.

In her work in South Carolina, Jones has been moving toward a model that incorporates family adaptation and adjustments. Families have demands and structures, the hassles of everyday life, and the chaos and unpredictability that tend to come with food insecurity. Families balance liabilities against their assets and capabilities. They understand the demands and stresses of their lives and adapt or adjust. They use family management strategies such as maintaining a family meal time or going out for fast food to feel like a normal family. When families are able to achieve this balance, they are resilient—they are able to maintain healthful diets, positive parenting, and healthful food routines. When imbalances arise, maladaptation can occur. Families can have obesogenic diets, disrupted food routines, and lack of parental monitoring or engagement. “The qualitative work we have done suggests that this might be a promising way to understand and intervene on food insecurity,” said Jones.

Features of SNAP

An institution can be seen as an organization with rules and policies that affect a person’s behavior. By that measure, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) fits the definition of an institution, because it affects people’s behavior when they participate. The Food Stamp Act of 1977 describes the program’s original intent as

  • To strengthen the agricultural economy;

  • To help to achieve a fuller and more effective use of food abundances; and

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