Buying Junk Food with Food Stamps? Advocates Disagree

Print Share on LinkedIn More


December 17, 2012; Source: Austin Post-Bulletin

In Minnesota, a fight is brewing regarding the right of food stamp recipients to buy items with high sugar content. In 2004, Minnesota tried to prevent food stamp purchases of soda and candy but the feds denied the plan and last year New York was denied in its attempt to ban the use of the stamps to buy sugary drinks. Still, some advocates continue to push for restrictions while others oppose them.

Mary Story is a senior associate dean of academic and student affairs for the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and she says that the coexistence of food insecurity and obesity as serious problems for low income people requires a “moderniz[ation]” of the food stamp program. She hopes to help convince the USDA to allow states to test out banning the sugary drinks as a start.

Simone French, director of the University of Minnesota’s Obesity Prevention Center, opposes the use of food stamps on all high-calorie, low-nutrition foods: “Like candy and cookies, Ho-Hos and processed snack foods, Doritos. Those we don’t really need,” French said. “They don’t really provide much nutrition, and they provide a lot of calories and fat.”

A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that the percentage of calories from fats, alcoholic beverages and added sugars consumed by those on food stamps (41 percent) was only slightly higher than the percentage of calories from those same sources by those not on food stamps (38 percent).

Minnesota Grocers Association President Jamie Pfuhl worries that the job of monitoring the healthfulness of products would discourage vendors. “There are about 20,000 products being introduced annually, and so we would have to determine with each one where they fall in that category,” Pfuhl said. “Some of our small grocers may not be able to keep up with that and may actually lose the ability to participate, which would be incredibly detrimental to Minnesotans.”

NPQ published a newswire a few days ago about the melee surrounding a Swedish charity’s tradition of distributing cigarettes to homeless people during the holidays. Some health advocates feel that it is wrong-headed but the charity distributing the cigs is holding firm to its work. In this similar situation, NPQ would be interested in reader responses to this disagreement among food-related advocates. –Ruth McCambridge

  • John Gear

    This is such a frustrating, foolish debate, reflecting food stamps origin as a commodity price support program rather than nutrition assistance.

    Instead of taking the prohibition approach of “bad foods” and administrative burdens inherent in it, why not just do the simple, sensible thing and unite SNAP and WIC. The WIC foods list is a pretty good basic diet plan. If SNAP (“food stamps”) could only be used to buy WIC approved items the way WIC funds are, then presto, no problem. SNAP dollars would go much, much farther in terms of nutritional support to people who need it, merchants would have no problem knowing which foods are in or out (as WIC foods are already listed, and change very little … Much like the ingredients in a good diet).

  • JC Dwyer

    This debate wrongly assigns blame to the food stamps program for the complex issue of obesity, when there is significant research evidence that SNAP participation actually improves dietary health. It is also an entirely notional solution to the problem of obesity — we do not know how restrictions would affect consumer behavior, but we do know that changing the structure of SNAP (essentially adding an entire new level of bureaucracy and a dual bottom line) would have costs for the program, among them increased stigma for responsible adults who receive the benefit.

    The comparison with WIC is likewise spurious. WIC is a short, affirmative list of allowable foods based on a broad consensus about the nutritional needs of infants and small children. SNAP critics are instead calling for a negative list — a screen that must be applied to every item in the store, including the thousands of new items that are introduced each year, representing a much higher cost to the retailer. They want to create this list without scientific consensus on the nutritional needs of the myriad, diverse populations that benefit from SNAP. This creates an opening for intense lobbying efforts by various food manufacturers, similar to those engaged in defining the content of school meals, and reformers shouldn’t be surprised if the outcome is likewise a swamp of regulation that does more to perpetuate poor diets than anything else.

    While I don’t doubt the sincerity of health advocates in seeking to improve the health of low-income consumers, they should take pause and see who is joining them in this fight. The majority of lawmakers seeking to restrict SNAP at the state level are hard-line conservatives with no intention of reforming the program. Instead, restrictions are just one more debate they have co-opted in order to drag SNAP’s good name through the mud. Given the intense pressure at the federal level to cut funding for this very successful program, one would think health advocates would consider retooling their strategies so as not to provide cover for lawmakers who only wish to malign poor people and the programs on which they depend.

  • michael

    Isn’t this just one more example of the suffocating Nanny State? If it’s not Michael Bloomberg going all hormonal about a blue collar man enjoying a Big Gulp, then it’s Randi Weingarten schreeching how poor black parents may choose the wrong schools for their kids.

    C’mon folks, how about a little more liberty for everyone. How about we all stop looking down upon the choices of what others eat, drink, smoke, read, watch, buy…. And for Pete’s sake, if we gonna have 1/6th of our population on food stamps, then at least give them the dignity of buying what they want rather than treat them like little children “No Hershey bars until you eat all your argula”. Sheesh….

  • Ruth McCambridge

    sheesh is right. There was an “incident” here in massachusetts where some misguided soul selling whoopee pies at the local farmers market refused to take food stamps on the basis that this kind of treat was not what the food stamps are for.

    Maybe we could run taste tests and allow no buying of anything that tastes real good on the basis that it will produce more rectitude, temperance and moderation. It’s a slippery slope

  • John Gear

    JC, SNAP is already grossly underfunded; further, it’s going to get worse. See Cb&pp story belw. Given that reality, my preference, which has nothing to do with obesity or blaming the poor, is that every dollar work as hard as possible to offer good nutrition rather than to line the pockets of the processors who turn a few cents of commodity and already subsidized corn, sugar, wheat, and dairy into wildly overpriced profit-centers?

    Yes, the origin of the WIC list is, as the name suggests, women, infants, and children, but hey, the list is fine for all human eaters. Bottom line, since food stamps are inadequate, what could possibly be wrong with shoring them up and stretching them as far as possible by ensuring that they go to purchase real food rather than processed phood?

    Just like I want Medicaid to support real health care and not homeopathy, aromatherapy, energy healing or other quackery, it’s not about blaming anybody, it’s about saying that when we use public funds to help people, we should make sure the funds buy things that help, not hurt.

    “Food stamps to be cut
    by SAM SMITH on Dec 19, 2012 7:00 AM
    Center on Budget & Policy Priorities – As policymakers deliberate over the “fiscal cliff” and calls are coming from some quarters for major cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), they should take this into account:  SNAP benefits are already scheduled to fall next November 1, when the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary benefits boost ends.  Any further cuts would come on top of these significant reductions and would cause further hardship.

    Benefits will decline for every SNAP household.  For families of three, the cut likely will be $25 to $30 a month — $300 to $360 a year.

    That’s a serious loss, especially in light of the very low size of basic SNAP benefits.  Without the Recovery Act’s boost, SNAP benefits average only about $1.30 per person per meal.  Nutrition experts have long held that these levels are inadequate to meet families’ basic food needs.”


  • Kevin Ronnie

    Excellent and thoughtful comments. I work for a foodbank and frequently have to respond to comments / questions about restriciting SNAP purchases to ‘healthy’ food items. You have provided an excellent roadmap for response.

  • Pat

    Why is it that we think we should get to tell poor people what they can eat? Give them information on nutrition, maybe have classes for those who want to learn more, but don’t dictate what they can and can’t have. Do you really want to tell a child that he can’t have cookies because the family is on food stamps even though all his classmates can? America definitely has a problem with obesity, but having laws that restrict what you can eat isn’t the answer. It didn’t work well in prohibition, it doesn’t work well with drugs, and it won’t work well with food.

  • jack spencer

    . There is NO evidence that consumption of sweets is leading to increased costs in our social welfare programs. Go ahead and cite it (That’s right its not there.)

    By perpetuating these kinds of myths, we justify our superiority over the poor, and feel we have a right to micromanage their daily lives.

    The food stamp program or social welfare programs in general, were never intended for this purpose