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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August 27, 2011 3:11 pm

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?

Adventures in Alyssaland
August 26, 2011 8:22 pm

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.

October 4, 2011 7:30 am

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.

April 26, 2012 5:09 pm
Reply to  factchecker

… 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.

April 26, 2012 6:59 pm
Reply to  Correction...

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

August 26, 2011 6:50 pm

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.

Mrs Q
Mrs Q
August 26, 2011 6:30 pm

Great post!

Amie Hood
Amie Hood
August 26, 2011 6:25 pm

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?

October 4, 2011 7:29 am
Reply to  Amie Hood

Is fruit juice “crap” or gatorade or vitamin water

June 10, 2012 1:41 pm
Reply to  Amie Hood

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!

August 26, 2011 6:20 pm

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.

August 26, 2011 5:35 pm

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 »

October 9, 2011 6:58 pm
Reply to  SG

‘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.

Casey@Good. Food. Stories.
August 26, 2011 4:52 pm

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.

Mike S
Mike S
September 27, 2011 11:51 am
Reply to  Andrew

New York State should sue the Federal Government to disallow soda (sugar water) from the SNAP program, since they didn’t do it voluntarily. Such a lawsuit would be a perfectly reasonable assertion of state’s rights.

August 26, 2011 4:43 pm

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?

October 9, 2011 6:54 pm
Reply to  Andrew

I’m interested to know why you think the governement shouldn’t be able to dictate what non-welfare reeipients spend their grocery money on, but welfare recipients should have to be limited to what the government decides is appropriate.

We are having a similar thing happen here in Australia and to me it implies an attitude of ‘poor=stupid’ – these people don’t have enough money to buy food, therefor they will make poor food choices. I take issue with this.

In my opinion food stamps should be used to buy any and all groceries. While I agree that the sources of problems like poverty need to be addressed systematically, for me it doesn’t follow that those in poverty need to be treated like children.

August 26, 2011 2:16 pm

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

August 21, 2012 2:46 pm
Reply to  LiztheChef

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 .

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