Lawmaker Tries to Cut Surf and Turf From the Food Stamp Diet

But the Missouri law contradicts the way people spend their SNAP benefits.

(Photo: Kelly Cline/Getty Images)

Apr 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

What does a food stamp diet look like: Lentil soup for days? Or steak and lobster for every dinner?

The question of who can buy what with food stamps is not a new one. But even with efforts to incentivize recipients to purchase healthier foods—say, by doubling Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars at farmers markets—criticism of the program remains largely the same. In short, people are buying things with SNAP that poor people shouldn’t buy.

Almost without fail, there has been a comment on stories I have written about food stamps in which someone says he or she saw a person using SNAP to buy steak or lobster at the grocery store. It’s a notion nearly as resonant as Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” who, introduced by the then presidential hopeful in a 1976 stump speech, has held sway over public assistance program debates for nearly 40 years. Because if someone is living large off taxpayer dollars—earning $150,000 a year in 1976 dollars, or eating a lobster dinner on SNAP—there has to be something wrong with welfare programs, right?

Unlike the much smaller Women, Infants, and Children program, which limits the foods that can be purchased to “healthy” items, SNAP is open season. While food stamps cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or hot foods, just about anything else sold at the supermarket is fair game—from soda to sirloin steak and seafood, regardless of price. But if Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin has his way, there will be new restrictions imposed on residents in his state. He introduced a bill last week that would block SNAP recipients from using their benefits to “purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”

Most of the one-page bill is dedicated to setting a definition for energy drinks—at least 65 milligrams of caffeine per eight ounces—but it is tellingly missing a similar distinction for steak and seafood. While blocking soda and chips from SNAP addresses a health concern and is popular with plenty of left-leaning policy groups, banning steak and seafood is a class concern. The outrage over people buying lobster with SNAP, after all, is simply that someone who is poor should eat like a poor person, not like a rich one—never mind that steak and seafood range wildly in price, and both are considered part of a healthy diet.

“The intention of the bill is to get the food stamp program back to its original intent, which is nutrition assistance,” Brattin told The Washington Post.

But data from the USDA suggests that the program is already managing to accomplish that, and without limits on what can be purchased—even on something as pedestrian and widely considered unhealthy as soda.

A recent study from the USDA’s Economic Research Service found that recipients “are no more likely” to buy soda or other sugary drinks than other low-income people who do not receive benefits. Furthermore, the researchers note that more than 85 percent of people on SNAP spend money out of pocket on their groceries, with the average household buying $490 worth of groceries in a month while only receiving an average of $257 in food stamps.

The study also looked at alcohol consumption—booze, again, cannot be purchased with SNAP—and found no difference between people with similar economic backgrounds who are and are not on SNAP. In other words, people are more than capable of balancing their vices and luxuries against the realities of budgets, benefits, and blocked items. Unlike Internet commenters and certain politicians, the agency has realized that it's not the USDA’s job to decide what low-income people should eat—and it really isn't anyone else's job either.

So yes, people buy steak and lobster with SNAP. There’s even a Snopes page about it, based on a receipt for $141 of lobster, porterhouse steak, and Mountain Dew that went viral in 2011. (The receipt was real, the purchases legal, but the buyer was later arrested for reselling the food at 50 percent of its cost.) But when federal dietary guidelines recommend two servings of seafood a week and the average price of steak can vary between $6 and $8 a pound, what would a bill like Brattin’s ban, other than a political bogeyman, in practice?

When Fox News interviewed another SNAP recipient who bought discounted lobster with SNAP last year, Jon Stewart congratulated the conservative network in a Daily Show segment for finding its “food-stamp-abuse Bigfoot.”

“That one guy you found is certainly not someone the food stamp program itself would point to as its greatest success story,” Stewart said. “But we make fun of you not for finding him but for pretending that he somehow represents literally millions of Americans.”