The state’s broken record: food stamp policy waivers

Sometimes it starts with a state-level politician grocery shopping. 

“I was behind this lady with a shopping basket loaded with sugary drinks, potato chips, cookies and candy. She had nothing of any nutritional value in her cart and when it came time for her to pay, she pulled out her EBT card and paid for it.” Mississippi State Senator

“Several months ago, I was in line at a local grocery store when I noticed someone with children in front of me purchasing an entire grocery cart full of chips, soda, doughnuts, ice cream and other junk food. Unfortunately, she pulled out her EBT card, which carries her monthly Food Stamp allocation-and, swiped it to pay for all of that unhealthy food and off she went.” California State Senator

Other times political constituents complain about what they saw at the supermarket. Either way, it’s only going one place: a request from the state to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a waiver to restrict the type of food purchases allowed by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). That request will either die in discussion among state legislators or be rejected by the USDA.

How do I know this? It has already happened at least 11 times. Minnesota led the way with such a request in 2004. The USDA told Minnesota their desire to ban the purchase of candy and soft drinks with SNAP dollars attempted to redefine the USDA definition of food couldn’t be accommodated. Since then, Illinois, Oregon, New York, California, Vermont, Texas, Florida, Montana, Mississippi, and Iowa have also tried their hand at restricting the types of food eligible for SNAP purchases.

In my last post, Replacing hunger with health: a food stamp dilemma, I outlined why the USDA continually rejects requests to limit types of foods SNAP dollars can purchase:

  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.

For these and other reasons, incentives for healthier, rather than restrictions on unhealthy, purchases appear to be a more effective way to increase the health-related outcomes of SNAP. However, the crux of why many state legislators suggest SNAP purchasing restrictions doesn’t seem to lie in public health and that might explain why their policy suggestions on this topic have little hope to do so. Rather, the policies seem driven by a desire to feel better about how federal tax dollars are spent. Of course we want to “feel good” about where our taxes go, but that should be the product of sound policies, not an end in itself.

In the most recent attempts to restrict SNAP purchases, I’ve tracked down justifications given by state legislators for their proposals. It seems that the restriction-focused policies stem from how people don’t want to spend money. In a future post, I’ll describe the decision making process of the incentive-focused policies, whose creators focus more on how they do want to use resources.

State Year State Politician D or R? Legislation Justification
Iowa 2012 Rep. Dave Heaton Republican House File 2434 As quoted in a Radio Iowa news story: “And we’re not saying they can’t buy these unhealthy foods,” Heaton says. “We’re saying if you do, you’ve got to use your own money.”
Mississippi 2012 Sen. Bill Stone Democrat Senate Bill 2293 As quoted in a TheGrio article: “we should not be paying for this junk.’ We should be providing nutrition to sustain children.”
Montana 2012 Rep. Tom Burnett Republican Tweet from @TomBurnettHD63: “Food Stamps Are (57%) a Waste of Money. What people buy is junk food,obesity-promoting foods. Almost no fruit, veggies. http://bit.ly/fJ7bEj”
Florida 2012 Rep. Ronda Storms & Sen. Scott Plakon Republican Senate Bill 1658 & House Bill 1401 As quoted in an L. A. Times article: “If we’re going to be cutting services across the board,” she said, “then people can live without potato chips, without store-bought cookies, without their sodas.”
Texas 2011 Rep. Susan King Republican House Bill 3451 As quoted in Longview News-Journal article: “It’s really a dual thing for me — it’s health,” she said, noting inferior nutritional characteristics of many items food stamps can buy. “And it’s a misuse of taxpayer funds.”
Vermont 2011 Rep. Oliver Olsen Democrat On his blog, Rep. Olsen wrote: “..we would encourage healthier choices, while reducing long-term-healthcare costs that we, the taxpayers, end up paying for…The real question is whether it is appropriate to spend public money on foods that have limited nutritional value, including items that contribute to long-term health problems.”
California 2011 Sen. Michael Rubio Democrat As quoted in a Bakersfield Californian article: “The question is what should we be using taxpayer funds to purchase,” the Bakersfield Democrat said Tuesday. “In my opinion, we should be focusing on what people need, not what they want.”

Not mentioned in this table is Mayor Bloomberg’s 2010 request for the USDA to enable a ban on the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP dollars in New York City. That waiver was also denied.

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