Don’t Let Them Eat Cake: New York Bill Bans Luxury Items From Food Stamps

The proposed legislation lists steak, lobster, and decorated cakes as luxury foods.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Feb 20, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

New Yorkers hoping to buy a cake for their kid piped with “Happy Birthday” won’t be able to use their food stamps to do so if one conservative lawmaker has her way.

State Sen. Patty Ritchie introduced legislation this week to ban unhealthy and expensive foods for purchase through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Roughly 3 million New Yorkers receive SNAP benefits, costing the state about $5.6 billion annually, according to the USDA, which administers grants the states use to help pay for the program. The advocacy group Hunger Solutions estimates that 4.3 million people in the state may be eligible for food stamps, with roughly 1 million children living in food-insecure households.

Ritchie’s bill is presented as a way to help people using SNAP make healthier choices, as the proposal notes that items such as soda, candy, and cake are fueling New York’s obesity epidemic. (Roughly 27 percent of New Yorkers are obese, compared with the national average of about 35 percent.) But the bill also singles out so-called luxury items like decorated cakes, energy drinks, steak, and lobster.

“This legislation would not only help low-income families and individuals stretch their food budgets further and promote health and nutrition, it would also protect taxpayers from abuse of a program that’s intended to help those who have fallen on hard times,” Ritchie wrote in the bill memo.

It’s a matter for debate whether a bigger problem in the world’s tenth-wealthiest nation is abuse of social programs or that 1 million children are hungry in a state where apartments sell for $100 million. Critics say legislation to regulate food-stamp purchases perpetuates a myth that people are using the program to fund extravagant lifestyles. In recent years, legislators in Wisconsin and Missouri have attempted to regulate the diets of those in need, citing anecdotes about witnessing a patron buying crab legs with his EBT card.

Research from the USDA has shown that people on food stamps are no more likely to consume unhealthy or luxury items than those who do not receive benefits. One survey found that people on food stamps ate less seafood and cake. Beef consumption was relatively the same, although the survey did not break down the exact cut of meat.

The USDA has repeatedly chosen not to place restrictions on food purchases, fearing it would prove burdensome and expensive. Under federal law, food stamps can’t be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes, hot or prepared foods, or pet items, but price and nutritional value aren’t a factor. That means any food item from filet mignon to a box of top ramen is eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits. Earlier this week, the USDA proposed new regulations intended to foster more widespread availability of healthy foods by requiring some retailers that accept EBT cards to provide more nutritious options, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.