Should You Be Able to Buy Junk Food With Food Stamps?

It's a weirder debate than you might think.

SNAP junk food

(Photo: stacylynn/Flickr)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

With so many debates out of Washington drawn along all-too-predictable political lines, it can be kind of trippy when one actually makes you stop and think. Take this question: Should you be able to use food stamps to buy things like Coke and Snickers?

Um, no. Well, wait a minute.… Maybe? Huh? Now that’s an interesting question.

For most taxpayers who don’t receive food stamps, the reflexive answer is probably no. But as a recent Bloomberg article points out, the whole debate is creating strange bedfellows.

Think: The soda and junk food lobbies aligned with advocates for the poor and even libertarians in one corner; those same lobbies camped with nutritionists and conservative Republicans in another.

Nearly 50 million Americans, or one in seven, rely on the federal food stamp program, more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). More than $75 billion in food stamps—a record—was used to purchase food in 2012.

Meanwhile, as Bloomberg reports, another record was set this year: 27.2 percent of the adult U.S. population is now regarded as obese, a 1 percent uptick over the year before, which is the largest year-over-year increase since 2009. The rate climbs even higher for people who make less than $30,000 per year, to more than 31 percent.

To public health advocates, the answer to whether we should continue to allow food stamps to be used to buy junk food is a no-brainer. “On a limited budget, people buy cheap and unhealthy food,” Tina Rosenberg pointed out recently in an op-ed for The New York Times. “Community groups and cities can’t solve that problem—not for more than a handful of people at a time, anyway. But the federal government can.”

Rosenberg cites the success of relatively recent changes to another (much smaller) federal food assistance program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). In 2009, the WIC rules were changed, with vouchers provided specifically for produce and restrictions on how other benefits could be used (only to buy reduced-fat milk, say, or whole-grain bread). A follow-up study from Yale found that after the changes, WIC participants not only bought healthier food using their federal benefits but spent more of their own money on more nutritious items too.

Rosenberg and others argue that because SNAP reaches significantly more people, similar changes would achieve significant results. But no less an authority than the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP program, has rejected any move in that direction—much to the delight of the soda and processed food industries. The agency recently put the kibosh on an attempt by New York and Minnnesota to block recipients from purchasing soda and candy with SNAP money, saying in part that such a move “would perpetuate the myth that [SNAP] participants do not make wise food purchasing choices.”

While that rationale may seem disingenuous in light of how much money the entire junk food industry spends on lobbying, it’s one that a number of anti-poverty advocates agree with. “There’s a basic question of dignity and freedom here,” the Reverend David Beckmann, president of Washington-based Bread for the World, tells Bloomberg. “Poverty is undignified. It’s not that SNAP beneficiaries are eating a lot more chips than the rest of us. We all eat too many chips in this country.”

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