Food stamps for soda

Food Stamps for Soda

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”, formerly called “Food Stamps”) serves nearly 46 million Americans a year.  That means about one in seven Americans are now getting government assistance to buy food through this program (the number has been climbing steadily, up from about 27 million around this time in 2007).

The average monthly benefits per person are now $133.80.  Multiply that out and it means we’re spending over $65 Billion a year on SNAP (and the numbers are growing every month: It’ll be over $70 Billion for 2011).

I’m certainly not opposed to ensuring that nutritious food is available to every person, but it sure seems to me that the entire SNAP program is a band-aid, not a solution to the underlying issues. But that’s a topic for another time.

The part that I am opposed to?  Of that $65 Billion, about $4 Billion goes to buy soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

So first we subsidize the production of corn, which allows us to produce high fructose corn syrup at an incredibly low cost. Then we turn it into nutritionally-devoid sugar-water, and give people money to buy the stuff. About half of that money goes back to the manufacturers — so we’re subsidizing these companies on both ends, and all the while we’re in the middle of an obesity and health crisis!

It just doesn’t make sense.

Last October, New York asked the USDA (which administers the SNAP program) to try an experiment. They wanted to disallow the usage of SNAP benefits for purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages.

A few days ago, the USDA rejected their request. The primary reason?  “Too complex.” (I’m paraphrasing). Their rejection letter [PDF] does go on to make some valid points, but in my opinion, none of them should have been dealbreakers.

It’s important to note that there are already other limits on what can be purchased with SNAP benefits (alcohol, cigarettes, foods that will be eaten in the store, and more).  Many of the rules don’t make much, if any, sense from a nutritional standpoint. For a great first-hand example of this irony, read this incredible story of Chicken vs. Twinkies from Kimberly at Poor Girl Eats Well.

I also dug up this 2007 PDF, in which the USDA makes their case against restricting the use of food stamp benefits. So it seems the USDA had already dug their heels in on this issue awhile back — and still took nearly a year to reply to Mayor Bloomberg’s request.

Interestingly, in their rejection letter, they point out that they prefer incentive-based solutions, and specifically reference a pilot program in Massachusettes that “increases SNAP benefits when fruits and vegetables are purchased.”  (Great!).  Implementing an incentive program such as that sounds about as complicated as the one Mayor Bloomberg proposed — which pretty much invalidates their “it’s too hard!” argument.

Moreover, the USDA also administers the excellent Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. WIC participants “receive checks or other vouchers to purchase specific foods each month that are designed to supplement their diets with specific nutrients.”

It’s a worthy list, and includes “infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, and canned fish. Soy-based beverages, tofu, fruits and vegetables, baby foods, wholewheat bread, and other whole-grain options were recently added to better meet the nutritional needs of WIC participants.” (Source, PDF)

So it seems the USDA is talking out of both sides of its mouth. They claim that they don’t have the ability to restrict what food stamps should be used for (even though they already do have some restrictions), and that it wouldn’t be effective anyway.  On the other side, they administer the WIC program, quite effectively, which does exactly that.

(In case you’re wondering, in 2010 the WIC program, which is funded differently than SNAP, had about 9 million participants, at a total cost of about $6.7 Billion.)

Obviously, this one change proposed by New York would not have been enough to combat obesity in America on it’s own — that’s just silly. The USDA points out that it might not have a significant impact (or even could have some negative impacts). But when the negative impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages are already so well-known, it sure sounds like lunacy not to at least try it.

Considering that it’s supposed to be “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance,” and that soda has no nutritional merit whatsoever, I’m really struggling to see any valid reason why people participating in SNAP should be allowed to use their benefits to purchase it.

What do you think?

I tried to keep this post brief, since this topic is already being covered quite well. I recommend reading these excellent articles by Megan CottrellTom Laskawy, and Andy Fisher for more.

Want to hear something positive about SNAP?  Recipients can use their benefits to to buy seeds and plants which produce food to eat. Nice.

Photo courtesy of The California Center for Public Health Advocacy, on Twitter at @CCPHA

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I am also on the “Snap” program and although I greatly appreciate the states’ help in feeding me and my kids, I do agree there needs to be more education. The only nutritional help I have ever recieved is in a nutrition class I am currently taking. I had no idea how poorly I was feeding my children and I am currently trying to correct years of bad habits. I wonder how many people out there are in the same position as me.

The author and commentators fail to point out that food stamp program is for adults not infants and children and WIC. What determines the value of food stamps, the thrifty food program along with deductions. The thrifty food program publishes statistics, however the value used is adult males between say 19-50. Women generally need less calories than men, should women get less food stamps or the eldery? The maximum SNAP benefit is based on the 19-50 male diet. The problem with the definition of “healthy” is that it varies by gender,occupation,age,etc The “Soda ban” would allow diet sodas, concentrated food juices that basically have most of the nutrition of the fruit removed such as the fiber, and chocolate milks, which may have more sugar than many sodas. However, the soda ban would not allow gatorade and vitamin water which is more healthy than concentrated fruit juices, in the minnesota case,… Read more »

This makes me feel ill to view your photo and read your thoughtful post. How can this be allowed to happen?!


I am a new user of snap . I never thought not would have tried to get soda . It is the supplemental nutritin assistance program . I have worked years and paid taxes . Now being a mom and not being able to work this program has helped more than enough . I feel fortunate enough to be accepted so i only get fruits vegetables and meats . If i did it any other way i would feel like i was taking advantage and destroying hope for the less fortunate .


This is a tough issue. I think I agree with you, but we don’t want the federal government heading too far down a paternalistic path. But if we can limit prepared food and alcohol, then why not soda. Doesn’t seem to be too hard.

I know you said it is for another post, but I’m curious as to why you think SNAP is a band-aid? I can’t think of any other way to make sure people have enough money to buy food other than than through a major redistribution of wealth. Is that what you are getting at?

Casey Barber

As much as people here in the New York area like to rag on Mayor Bloomberg for his policies, I truly support what he’s been attempting to accomplish in the name of nutrition. Initiatives against smoking, trans-fats, high-sodium products – all steps in the right direction. It’s just a damn shame this one didn’t get more traction.

1- If the government is going to pay for your food, really, it is the taxpayers who are paying for your food. 2- The taxpayers also pay for health services. 3- I don’t want to fund your diseases AND the care you get for them. ALSO. See it this way. We are grown adults, and the ideal scenario is that we should be able to provide for ourselves. For example, if my parents told me to go out in the world and provide for myself and I lost my job, they’d help me, but they wouldn’t want to give me say, 200$ a month so I can blow it on crap, they’d want me to make the most of that money. Saves THEM money, and they have more for other things. ALSO. I’m not from the States, but my understanding is this SNAP program is there to help Americans, not… Read more »

‘1- If the government is going to pay for your food, really, it is the taxpayers who are paying for your food’

Yes. And your schools, roads, parks, transport…

But here’s the thing. You can’t just opt in to some spending and out of other spending. I can’t decide that I want me taxes to go to schools but not healthcare for the obese, for example.

In addition, the obesity epidemic is not just an epidemic among the poor or those on food stamps. So the only fair way to administer the kind of change being suggested in this post would be to tax or outlaw junkfood for everyone.


I happen to be on the SNAP program. I dont buy soda except for plain seltzer (would that count?).so this wouldn’t bother me. I have kids wuth autism disorders and extensive food allergies. While I dont mind tge limit on soda where woyld thety draw the line? would my $12 organic chicken (that I make 3 meals from for 5 peeps) be a no no? How about the endless allergen friendly/specialty foods? Those seem like luxe dining to some, but necessary to my kiddos to avoid pain,n suffering. I would love more money to spend on fruits, veggies amd meats at the farmers market. To some there is this mentality because i’m on snap that we should eat ramen noodles and sunny delight even though that would cause immedeate illness.

Amie Hood

Hmmm…you make a good point. While I feel a little uncomfortable telling people what they can eat, I also think it’s important not to fund that crap with federal dollars. I think education would go a long way, too. The WIC program includes peer counseling & support. Does the SNAP program offer the same?


Is fruit juice “crap” or gatorade or vitamin water


Nobody is telling anyone what they can and cannot eat. Simply, if you CHOOSE to eat that, I am not paying for it. When times are tough, we need to make appropriate CHOICES and this often includes changes in what we eat/drink. It also means we don’t get to EAT as we would LIKE to.

I am a WIC recipient and am VERY grateful for the changes they have implemented over the past few years. More fruits/vegs and whole wheat bread. Yeah!

Mrs Q

Great post!


No SNAP doesn’t provide education. The WIC education in my expierence was good in theory, but lacked folllow through. There’s not much that my kids could eat from the WIC program either so we gave it up.

Adventures in Alyssaland

Nothing drives me more bonkers than when I see people using their WIC or BRIDGE cars to buy soda (or any junk food) usually in bulk.


Given that WIC does not buy many sweetened drinks except fruit juice and foods usually known as junk food, your credibility is questioned, on the other hand junk is hard to define, a glazed doughnut is healthier than a bagel with or without cream cheese.


… A glazed doughnut has less CALORIES that a bagel with or without cream cheese, but the health value of it is not counted only by calories. A whole wheat bagel with creamed cheese gives you some good nutrition, whereas a glazed doughnut gives you nothing.

Given that you seem to not understand that being rude and wrong makes you look silly, your credibility is questioned.


Your wrong about a glazed donut giving you nothing. 1 serving of glazed donut provides the recommended daily allowance of diabetes 🙂


My favorite part is that even though it’s SNAP federally, here in California it is called CalFresh! And, yes, you can buy soda. Fresh does not include soda!

I know a few years ago California funded a pilot program, and Massachusetts received a big fed grant to pilot a program to promote healthier foods at the state level … wonder how it is doing?

Xan from Mahlzeit

I think telling poor people how to spend money is paternalistic and disrespectful; it’s like giving a street person a hand out and then telling them “now don’t spend it liquor.” You are not their mother, they are free adults, and it’s none of your business how they spend money, even when it’s food stamps, and therefore somehow yours rather than theirs.

Further, if you’re going to restrict “junk food” from food stamps, you might as well restrict all processed foods, since there isn’t all that much difference between a coca cola and jar of cheap grape jelly, or worse, a “Lunchable” child’s meal these days, as far as nutritional value goes.


The difference is taxpayer funds are being used, but yes junk is hard to define, for instance is mott’s apple sauce or dole’s syrup better than soda, no.


I am so sick of that logic. It’s not taxpayer money, don’t you see? Once you use that money to fund something IT CEASES TO BE YOUR MONEY. And yes, I’m with Xan, how someone spends their money, however they got it, is none of your business.


If someone says to me, “I am hungry and have no money to feed my family”, and I give them $20 for food, I darn well have the right to be pissed if they use it on soda, despite the fact that it is no longer mine once I give it away.

Saying something is taxpayer money does not mean it belongs to an individual, but to the collective “taxpayer” who has the right to vote and decide how the money should be spent. If there was a vote up for whether my kids’ school should get more funding or whether Mrs. Lazypants down the street should get soda, I vote for the money to go to the school.


I know a lot of people worry about big brother telling them what to do but I feel like if you are going to take public assistance, there should probably be some strings attached to that. These programs are supposed to be temporary assistance, not a permanent solution, right? I also think that part of the program – SNAP, WIC, etc. – should be education. Just my 2 cents…

Mike S

This is a great point. To illustrate, let’s say I live large, party a lot, sleep late, don’t do housework, etc. Then I lose my job, am down on my luck, and have to move back in with my parents until I get back on my feet. I’m relying on their support, in their house, so I have to live by their rules (no partying, I have to do chores, etc.). If I don’t like it, then that’s all the more incentive for me to get back to supporting myself. Same goes with government welfare programs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling people how they can and cannot spend money they receive from the government. If they don’t like it, then that’s more incentive to get off welfare.

I get your concern – and I admit that I’m really conflicted on this issue. But the thing is, this is about the 78th in a LONG line of strings attached to receiving benefits. If this string disappeared, there would still be an immense tangle of strings in place that have to do with assets you’re allowed to have, residence, etc. My internal conflict goes like this: Like others have said, it is really paternalistic to assume that folks who aren’t on SNAP/WIC/other assistance are so self-actualized that they get to pull all of the strings that exist and add more every time new health information comes out. If a person on SNAP wants to have a beer at the end of a long-ass day at work, they should have as much right as I do. I’m a volunteer in an AmeriCorps-like program that, up until last year, received a… Read more »

Exactly, it is paternalistic , WIC for instance is paternalistic its for children and infants not an adult, as an corps volunteer should you have the same diet as a secretary, absolutely not,

Hey folks, we are going to a host a taxpayer funding sports game,
awesome, let’s get the gatorade, oh wait, no, it has sugar, but we can give the fruit juices with 3x the sugar. Sound ridiculous
it is, sugar is food, it gives energy, carbs break down into it,sugar is necessary for survival, no sugary drinks may not be the best way to get needs and calories but it is food, one issue not discussed is convenience stores and selling those items, given that to be a retailer you need to sell staples.


‘We ALL receive public assistance in some way, shape, or form.’