Millions of dollars in federal funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are on the chopping block in this year’s Farm Bill—now stalled in Congress with no timetable for completion. The SNAP program, formerly called food stamps, allots $150-200 per household member to spend on food every month in families that fall below an income threshold.
Through the years, the program has helped millions of low-income American families struggling with food insecurity. But are too many SNAP dollars being spent on junk food? A new study by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity has uncovered that the amount SNAP recipients spend on sugary drinks—including sodas, fruit drinks and sports drinks—is a staggering $2 billion per year.
Nobody wants take choice away from food insecure families, but with skyrocketing obesity rates and rising healthcare costs, some are questioning whether the federal government should set nutrition standards for what can be purchased with food stamps.
One food stamp expert says setting guidelines is a bad idea. Craig Gundersen, executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, says controlling how people utilize their benefits is a bad idea because it lowers program participation.
“Telling participants that they could purchase this, but couldn't purchase that—well, we know from numerous studies that when you restrict benefits in any way, fewer people participate,” Gundersen told United Press International. “Nobody tells you how to spend your mortgage tax deduction, why would we dictate to someone who is hungry what they can or can't eat?”
Adds Dr. Hugh Joseph, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, there’s no evidence that SNAP recipients eat any less healthy than non-SNAP recipients, so why would the government restrict only a small segment of the population? He says he’d like to see more energy put into nutrition education than a narrowing of what SNAP recipients can purchase.
“Maybe you and I can assume that people know what’s good or bad for them, but I don’t assume that’s true at all,” he says. “People who drink lots of soda are not really aware how calorie dense they are. The education piece can be a good way to start.”
Another option, Joseph says, could be to limit the locations where SNAP can be redeemed to shops “that carry a reasonably diverse range of foods,” but even that presents its own challenges—namely putting stress on store owners to determine what is and isn’t covered and potentially cutting off people in urban or extreme rural locations from finding food.
Food stamps have returned to the forefront of political conversation in 2012, with Republicans labeling President Barack Obama the “Food Stamp President” and accusing him of deliberately increasing dependency on government. Food stamp enrollment has rocketed to 46.6 million during Obama’s presidency, up from 34 million at the same time in 2009. But the increase is widely thought to correlate with the Great Recession and its aftermath, and analysts have shown that the growth in food stamp usage has been consistent with the past three recessions.
Still, recipients of the benefit are often demonized. Joseph says the myth of the “welfare queen”—who drives her Cadillac to pick up her welfare checks —still persists, to some degree. But more often, recipients of food stamps and other forms of assistance are cast as lazy. In Warner Robbins, GA, recently, a grocery store manager ridiculed a woman using a SNAP debit card to buy food when she argued that an item in her cart should be covered by the benefit, reports the Huffington Post. “Okay, just give it to her,” the manager told the checkout employee, adding, “Excuse me for working for a living and not relying on food stamps!”
The best option for encouraging healthy food purchases with SNAP, Joseph says, may be at the state and local level. He points to incentive programs that encourage people to use their SNAP dollars on healthier foods, like Wholesome Wave’s Double Voucher Program, of which he was a co-creator, which doubles the value of SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets in several states.
“[These programs] are not huge—a few million dollars—but arguably, they do push people to thinking about eating more fruits and vegetables in general,” Joseph says. “They can be a harbinger to better [food] policy.”
What do you think? Should low-income Americans be able to purchase sugary drinks and other junk food with food stamps?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter