The dual burden of poor diet quality and food insecurity makes free food-food acquired at no cost-a very important part of the nutrition safety net for low-income families. The goal of this study was to determine the national prevalence and nutritional quality of free food acquired separately in two settings: 1) by children at school; and 2) by employees at work; both stratified by participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Using National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey data (2012; n = 4,826 U.S. households containing 5,382 employed adults and 3,338 school-aged children), we used survey-weighted proportions to describe free food acquisition and linear regression to compare the 2010 Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010) for free/non-free food acquisition events (i.e., meals) by SNAP status. Analyses were conducted in 2019-2020.
SNAP households had more free acquisition events (29.6%) compared to non-SNAP households (<185% federal poverty level (FPL) = 22.3%; ≥185%FPL = 21.0%, p's<0.001). For SNAP-participant children, free acquisition events at school had a higher mean HEI-2010 compared to non-free acquisition events at school (50.3 vs. 43.8, p = 0.033) and free acquisition events by SNAP-non-participant children ≥185%FPL at school (50.3 vs. 38.0, p = 0.001). Free and non-free acquisition events at work had relatively low HEI-2010s, with no differences by SNAP status.
Over one fifth of all food acquisition events were free, but free food acquisitions at school and work were relatively unhealthy. For children participating in SNAP, free food acquired at school had higher nutritional quality. Improving the dietary quality of free foods could improve the health of families, especially those participating in SNAP.