Trends in cyclical food expenditures among low-income households receiving monthly nutrition assistance: Results from a prospective study

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Objective: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are rapidly depleted after distribution. This phenomenon, known as the benefit cycle, is associated with poor nutrition and health outcomes. However, to date, no study has evaluated trends in food expenditures before and after households receive benefits using prospective data, and whether these trends vary by household characteristics. Design: Generalised estimating equations were used to model weekly household food expenditures during baseline (pre-benefit) and intervention months by vendor (restaurants and food retailers). Food retailer expenditures were further evaluated by food category (fruits and vegetables and foods high in added sugar). All expenditures were evaluated by household composition, demographics and economic means. Setting: Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, metropolitan area. Participants: Low-income households (n 249) enrolled May 2013-August 2015. Results: Weekly food retailer expenditures did not vary during baseline (pre-benefit), but demonstrated a cyclical pattern after households received benefits across all household characteristics and for both food categories, particularly for fruits and vegetables. Households with greater economic resources spent more throughout the month compared with those with fewer resources. Households with lower food security status experienced more severe fluctuations in spending compared with more food secure households. Conclusions: Cyclical food purchasing was observed broadly across different household characteristics and food categories, with notable differences by household economic means and food security status. Proposed SNAP policy changes designed to smooth food expenditures across the benefit month, such as increased frequency of benefit distribution, should include a focus on households with fewest resources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)536-543
Number of pages8
JournalPublic health nutrition
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements: The authors thank Sarah A Rydell for her help with quality assurance of the data. Financial support: This project was supported by Award Number R01DK098152 and T32DK083250 from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the Division of Epidemiology & Community Health, School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. Conflicts of interest: There are no conflicts of interest. Authorship: S.V. and L.J.H. wrote the first draft of the manuscript; all authors read and approved the final manuscript. Ethics of human subject participation: This study was conducted according to the guidelines laid down in the Declaration of Helsinki, and all procedures involving research participants were approved by the University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board. Written informed consent was obtained from all participants.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Nutrition Society.


  • Benefit cycle
  • Food purchasing behaviour
  • Nutrition assistance
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program


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