Replacing hunger with health: a food stamp dilemma

It’s 7:00 on a weekday evening. You’re hungry. You stop by the store on the way home to grab some dinner and decide on a six-pack of Pepsi, a large bag of Lays Original potato chips, a frozen pizza, and a package of DoubleStuf Oreos. Not the healthiest, you admit to yourself, but you’re hungry and want something tasty, convenient, and cheap.


At the cash register you stand behind a couple with a basket of similar items, except they went even cheaper, with off-brand cookies, Ramen noodles, and the six-pack of Coca Cola that was on sale. When he pulls out his wallet to pay, instead of debit or credit, he swipes food stamp card. Wait a second, you think, are my taxes paying for someone to eat cookies and Coke?

You wouldn’t be the first person to think such a thought, and if you pursued it, if you dug beneath the reflexive dismay, you’d find your question spaghettis into many more.

I am probing the meshed hunger and health goals of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly called food stamps) for a story and one of the most intriguing tensions I’ve found is the expectation that SNAP recipients make healthier choices. That is, Americans want them to make healthy food purchases, often healthier than the average American. (note: we don’t actually have very good data on what people buy with SNAP, this is an observation based on USDA research and reports on food assistance)

It’s true that very low income Americans are among the most likely demographics to make unhealthy eating choices. But with more than two-thirds of our adult population overweight or obese and only 16% of our population on food stamps, very low income earners are clearly not the only ones making poor food decisions.

Since state and federal budgets are especially tight, subsidizing the purchase of junk foods strikes a nerve. While many programs suffer from cuts, SNAP has increased the amount of dollars it distributes. SNAP is giving out more benefits because it is uncapped and as more eligible people apply, more dollars are funneled to food assistance. When a program is getting more dollars in a time of extreme budget shortages, people want to know that the funding is going to good use.

Several states have made explicit moves trying to get their SNAP users to buy healthier food. For instance, a piece of legislation Florida considered earlier this year suggested SNAP dollars should not pay for “foods containing trans fats; sweetened beverages, including sodas; sweets, such as jello, candy, ice cream, pudding, popsicles, muffins, sweet rolls, cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobblers, pastries, and doughnuts; and salty snack foods, such as corn-based salty snacks, pretzels, party mix, popcorn, and potato chips.” Though this list of food lacks categorical efficiency and would be difficult to enforce, it perfectly illustrates the ethos of restricting what people buy with food stamps.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributes SNAP and wants recipients to make healthy purchases too. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) deploys nutrition education programs to accomplish that, however the outcome of the education programs is hard to measure and nothing significant has been noted yet.

The USDA hasn’t gone down the restrict-purchases road for several reasons detailed in a 2007 report titled Implications of Restricting the Use of Food Stamp Benefits. Their four main reasons for avoiding restrictions on food stamp purchases are:

  1. There aren’t any standards for distinguishing which foods are “good” or “bad”.
  2. Creating such standards and then classifying the hundreds of thousands of foods on grocery store shelves would be complicated and expensive.
  3. Since most food stamp recipients supplement their food budget with their own money, they would probably still buy the restricted foods anyway.
  4. There isn’t any evidence pointing to food stamps as the cause of bad dietary choices or diet-related diseases like obesity. Low income people are making similar food choices to the rest of America.

So why are states still suggesting restrictions? Even Mayor Bloomberg tried to ban purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps in New York City last year and his proposal was rejected by the USDA. It’s possible they haven’t read the report…but it’s more likely that restrictions appear the quickest way to stop tax dollars from purchasing cookies and soda.

The USDA suggests incentives for healthy purchases instead. One such incentive was authorized and funded by the Food, Nutrition, and Conservation Act of 2008. It is called the Health Incentives Pilot (HIP) and rather than slapping people on the wrist for buying unhealthy food, HIP gives SNAP recipients 30 additional cents for every dollar spent on health foods. Healthy foods in this case are defined as the foods purchasable with Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) fruit and vegetable vouchers. The program is on a test run that began last November in one county, Hampden County, Massachusetts. So far no data has been reported on the outcome of the program. Whether the cost of such incentives is sustainable on a wide scale remains to be answered.

The lingering questions here are: should we hold low income people more accountable for those choices simply because they can’t pay for them on their own? Why aren’t Americans’ food choices leading to health? Is that a problem that food stamps should address?

Stay tuned as I continue to research the topic for my story.


10 thoughts on “Replacing hunger with health: a food stamp dilemma

  1. On the flip side, when people use food stamps to buy healthier food items, they are often met with the same reactions. “Are my tax dollars paying for someone else to eat organic vegetables and shrimp?! I can’t even afford to eat that way.” (Although, it isn’t that they “can’t” afford to eat that way, it is that they choose to spend their money elsewhere).

    Instead of people from positions of power and privileged trying to force others into making decisions through regulations, it seems to me that we should be including the people that need and actually use food stamps into the conversation. So often, this population is left out of the decision making processes that directly affect their lives. I also think food education is critical for all walks of society – a lot of people who do not need food stamps also make very poor food choices on a regular basis.
    Nice blog, Emily!

    • Interesting point about buying expensive rather than cheap foods, Kristy. I agree, the food stamp user’s voice is often missing in this discussion. Thanks for commenting, I’m trying to think through all angles here and I appreciate you chiming in!

      • Yes, excellent point, Kristy. Seems there’s no escaping judgement either way. Therefore, I tend to say, make food assistance programs as much like cash as possible.
        Looking forward to more posts about this, Emily!

  2. Pingback: The state’s broken record: food stamp policy waivers | Curious Terrain

  3. Great stuff. Neat to see someone digging into this. Obviously the political rhetoric around SNAP and other assistance programs often leans towards simple statements instead of the often nuanced truth, which is that being poor is actually very expensive, and not just on the food front either. Being angry at people on food assistance programs is an easy out, when the reality is that education and access are often the issue.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Jacquelyn! I haven’t read it but from the table of contents, yes, it does look very relevant. Any chance you’d be up for lending it when you’re done?

  4. Great post! I love the USDA report overview especially. Should come in handy during the perennial discussions with my conservative extended family about how “big government is destroying america.”

  5. It’s preposterous to judge what I spend food stamps – which I waited 8 years to go on (been unemployed 10 years due to anxiety disorder I can’t get appropriate health care for in our broken for-profit system) and I’m sorry but it’s MY tax money too- I paid in when working through my entire 20s every waking second for 8 straight years, and so I should get to spend MY taxes however I want.

    Same reasoning as to why they should be allowed at fast food places- if I want to blow $10 on McDonald’s, I should have the right to live life, just like everyone else. Trust me, when you go five years unable to buy a cheeseburger from Burger King, it matters. No, not the burger. The being kicked while you’re down. It takes your depression and adds hopelessness to it. It makes you a less-than-2nd-class citizens. It makes you a slave to others’ morals.

    You can’t eat “healthy” on food stamps- you only get enough for 2 1/2 weeks tops for one person. Fresh, healthy foods are the most expensive and spoil the fastest. I have food issues (based on a food safety program I created when working and food poisoning that almost killed me) that make it impossible for me to eat or drink “fresh” foods after 2-3 days. Milk, bread, veggies- they have to go after that third day. Period. All you can afford to buy is pre-processed foods.

    I do not cook. I CAN cook, but I can not spend the 2 hours preparing, dirtying dishes, chopping, mixing, stirring, cooking, eating, cleaning up every single day. Even spaghetti takes an hour, with half the above steps. Even unemployed, I don’t have that time. I have to keep my anxiety down, which means fitting in 6-8 hours a day of activity that allows my mind to NOT dwell on my life woes. I can’t handle 1-2 hours a day cooking stuff.

    So what do I buy that’s healthy, and of large enough portions I don’t starve between meals? There are no options. We need MORE in food stamp benefits, and we need to be treated like the adults we are… not kicked while we are down.

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