Angela Rachidi takes aim at major problems within a high-profile federal government program.

In the coming months, Congress is expected to reauthorize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the country’s largest food assistance program that helps poor families afford groceries. Amidst ongoing debt ceiling negotiations, Republicans have focused on SNAP’s work provisions, proposing expansions to work requirements and identifying employment as a program goal. These efforts are crucially important — encouraging more work among SNAP recipients offers a realistic path out of poverty.

But these efforts also highlight an uncomfortable truth: many SNAP adults are too unhealthy to work. This is a unique irony. SNAP is supposed to give low-income households resources for a nutritious diet, yet recipients have uniquely high rates of diet-related disease. And there is little evidence that SNAP participation makes things better.

Congress can help by overhauling SNAP’s nutrition approach.

SNAP provides food benefits to 40 million individuals per month, offering the average participant approximately $200 per month. One of SNAP’s core goals is to “to permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet.” However, in a new report, we show that SNAP participants experience serious health concerns, with disproportionately high rates of physical and mental health problems compared to other groups of Americans.

Many factors explain why this group suffers from particularly bad health. A large part of the story though is that SNAP recipients have especially unhealthy diets, with large shares of benefits spent on sweetened beverages and ultra-processed foods.

Making matters worse, the fastest-growing group of SNAP recipients over the past two decades, according to our analysis — 50-to-64-year-olds now make up 28% of SNAP household heads — had the highest rates of health troubles in recent years (excluding the elderly). In recent years, almost 70% of SNAP household heads in this age group reported a diet-related disease diagnosis, such as diabetes or heart disease, and more than 40% were obese.