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Watch Your Mouth: What Should Food Stamps Subsidize? Should Food Stamps Pay For Junk Food?

The federal food stamp program is about alleviating poverty, not discouraging obesity, so farmers' markets or fatty snacks are both fair game.

Correction appended

In the spring of 1961, Alderson Muncy, a miner from West Virginia, traveled 22 miles to a grocery store where the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture awaited his arrival with a television crew and $95 in food stamps. The food allowance would need to cover meals for the jobless man, his wife, and their 13 children for a month. As Muncy loaded up his Jeep for the trip home, The New York Times reported that he had a shopping cart full of groceries “prominently including vanilla wafers and two boxes of cake mix.”

The historic occasion marked the birth of the modern era of food stamps, and provided an early glimpse at the attention devoted to the kinds of food poor people buy with them. To this day, critics contend that the government needs to tighten its grip on the money it doles out. They say poor people make bad choices when left to their own devices, and taxpayer money is better spent buying people just the food they need, not what the food they want. But do food stamps really subsidize junk food? And would adding restrictions on them inspire participants to make healthier purchases?

In the 50 years since President Kennedy expanded the food stamp program, federally-funded foods have become a permanent fixture in the American diet. Now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the program plays a key role in mitigating the United States’ “food insecurity” problem—the estimated 50 million Americans who’ve experienced trouble putting food on the table in the last 12 months. If Mr. Muncy were still around today, he’d be one of every six Americans receiving aid, and he’d be allowed to spend it on any food he wanted—anything except pet food, booze, or prepared foods.

As the program’s swelled in recent years, farmers markets and restaurants have jockeyed for a bigger slice of the $65 billion federal food stamp pie. (Currently, they make up only about .01 and .03 percent of SNAP spending, respectively). State and federal officials have worked with nonprofit organizations like Wholesome Wave to get SNAP’s required electronic terminals in the hands of farmers and market managers. Meanwhile, fast food giant Yum! Foods has lobbied to extend benefits to Pizza Huts, Taco Bells, and KFCs across America. The food stamp program was designed on the assumption that food is purchased and prepared at home, and aside from legislation permitting the homeless to make hot meal purchases or the elderly to use meal delivery services, long-standing limits prohibit most people from buying prepared foods with SNAP. Both of these recent efforts could further expand the options to better reflect how Americans actually shop for food today. If adopted, food stamp recipients would be free to choose between farm-fresh corn, corn-syrupy colas, fried chicken, or frou-frou salads at Whole Foods Market.

As KFC’s parent company jostles to dole out its wings to the hungry, nutritionists are arguing that if tobacco and alcohol can be excluded from SNAP on account of their health risks, so should soda and other junk foods. Research generally links enrollment in food assistance programs with a slight increase in obesity, especially among women; one recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that food stamp participation correlated with larger waists. Data from 1999-2004 (PDF) suggests that food stamp users spent 40 percent more on soda than other consumers. Food stamps were used to purchase soda and sugar-sweetened beverages an estimated 6 percent of the time. That's half a million gallons of subsidized soda per year. Last October, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to translate these findings into policy when he proposed a two-year ban on using food stamps to buy soda and sugary drinks.

In August, the USDA rejected Bloomberg's proposal, saying that limiting food stamp purchases would be a logistical and social nightmare. Besides the headaches involved in implementing it, the plan would “perpetuate the myth” that people on government assistance make bad choices, and further stigmatize people on government assistance, experts say. According to Craig Gundersen, an expert on food insecurity and obesity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (and a recipient of grants from USDA), proposals like Bloomberg's could so stigmatize food stamp use that fewer people would join the program, exacerbating hunger. “I find it really condescending when people say, ‘Oh, poor people should only be buying the types of foods we think they should be buying.’ Nobody says to people who are getting mortgage tax deductions, ‘You should only take the money you got from a mortgage tax deduction to buy healthy foods.’”

Since these food stamp restrictions remain untested in stores, researchers have turned to economic modeling in the lab. In a 2007 paper in Food Policy, researchers predicted that if sodas were banned from food stamp purchases, demand for soda would decrease, prices would fall, and more people would buy their Pepsis and Cokes with hard-earned cash instead of stamps. The ban would be “an ineffective and inefficient instrument for bringing about desired nutritional outcomes,” for drinkers both on and off government assistance.

Nutrition-minded critics of SNAP must contend with another economic reality: Folks on food stamps are on a tight budget, and cheap food tends to be less healthy. As obesity researcher Adam Drewnowski writes in Health Affairs, “If you have $3 to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar.” In order to get Americans eating their recommended portion of leafy green and yellow vegetables, prices would need to drop by 289 percent, J. Eric Oliver calculates in Fat Politics. “In other words,” Oliver writes, “we need to pay people to eat them.” Since a general veggie subsidy would largely benefit middle- and upper-class Americans who already have enough money to work fresh vegetables onto their plates at their current prices, targeted incentives, like bumping up the value of food stamps spent at farmers markets, may be more effective than subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables across the board.

Still, food stamps were never designed to boost nutrition or fight obesity. Simply put, food stamps offer targeted income support to poor people. Lifting Americans out of joblessness and poverty is a complicated task, and the problems associated with unhealthy diets and excessive weight affect all of us. The unemployed shouldn’t be forced to pay the price for our collective failures, particularly when the well-to-do are still sipping their Cokes and eating their cakes. In 1981, The New York Times checked back in on the Muncys, reporting that the family managed to get off food stamps 14 years after their first subsidized grocery haul. That’s a long time to go without a piece of cake.

Correction: The original version mischaracterized Craig Gunderson's work with the USDA.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user mauricesvay

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