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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January 28, 2013 8:41 pm

I understand that soda has no nutritional merit, but if we banned all things that had no nutritional merit from being eligible for SNAP, we’d be getting too specific. How nutritional is nutritional enough to be eligible?
There is a bit of a tone of disdain towards those on food stamps in this article, I have to agree with Christopher. My mother and I are on food stamps, because she divorced my father and then had to pay for her own cancer treatment. We both work as much as we can and I’m also a full-time college student. We’re definitely not getting a free ride and I have no intention of being on food stamps any longer the very second that I don’t need them.

November 18, 2012 3:02 am

I think the issue is more complex than a simple agree or disagree. However, rather than restricting what benefits are used for… perhaps focusing on helping retailers, who participate in SNAP, to offer healthy options, might be of some benefit.

October 3, 2012 9:19 pm

It’s just a messed up system that is long over due for a total over haul! Long ago I found myself in the “system” also. As a single mom, toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, dish detergent, bleach and maybe some pinesol would’ve been a blessing! I think a few (limited) key items should be included while excluding the twinkies,suzy-q’s, corn chips, and soda pop. Maybe some incentives could be put into place for purchasing produce. That certainly would’ve encouraged me to buy more apples and less ho hos. And if the whole point is to keep people from starving- not running a home (including those other products and cleaning supplies) then are we keeping people from starving by allowing chips, soda, etc? To make a judgement upon someone when you see a steak in their cart is a shame. To see a cart full of junk food is the… Read more »

August 1, 2012 4:51 pm

I also think it’s funny how you can purchase soda but they ban the purchase of anything energy drink wise. Sugar-free or not. Energy drinks may not be the best for you but at least they come with some sort of vitamins. Though, I don’t believe food stamp purchases should be regulated anymore then they are. I have family that are on aid and generally eat healthy but would like to have a soda every once in a while, maybe some candy or b-day cake for their kids. And why shouldn’t they have the ability to? What people eat or don’t eat is really noone’s business but themselves. The bigger issue, in my opinion, is that their are people (some of which I know) that say they don’t have enough money to buy food… but somehow have enough money to buy cigarettees/alcohol/drugs. Maybe that should be regulated before we start… Read more »

June 1, 2012 2:28 pm

I feel sorry and disgusted by the overtones of this article assuming that everyone on food stamps is some lowlife or scammer. Frankly, it’s absolutely none of your business or anyone else’s what they use their benefits for. People make the assumption “It’s MY money these people are getting, I’ll tell them how to spend it.” No it’s NOT your money. It’s money that’s allocated from taxes, to help the unfortunate. I never see these same people so concerned how the politicians are spending tax money for political mailers, Vegas trips, Steak dinners, fine dining, limos. The list goes on. I paid INTO the system for over 30 years, as a single man,the highest taxed a person can get. I was stabbed in the chest helping two children that were being abducted by a child molester. Flown to shock trauma, collapsed lung, severed phrenic nerve from my neck to my… Read more »

April 11, 2012 1:35 am

I really enjoyed this post.
I am currently on WIC and it irritates me so bad with the ridiculous restrictions. Im still learning what I can and cannot buy with the benefits and some of the things I cannot get is just flat out stupid. They allow me to get between 16-18oz of peanut butter. Okay, well I pick out organic no stir peanut butter, but guess what! I cannot buy it because it is organic. I asked my case worker why I couldnt buy organic and she couldnt explain why. She just told me that was the rules. Really? They say they want us to eat healthy, they why do they restrict organics?

May 23, 2016 1:56 pm
Reply to  Caitlin

They restrict it because the cost of organic is higher. I’ve been on WIC and I’m on EBT now as much as I agree we should be make healthy choices…educate…. because if you’re restricting as fierce as WIC it’s time consuming… also you cannot buy any light versions of anything. Further example I’m a vegetarian(pretty much vegan)I cannot have gluten, lactose , peanuts or eggs (allergy) try dealing with WIC on this or EBT if they want to monitor my spending.
I also have an Environmental science degree I know which foods are most important to buy organic and I’m not going to be happy if the government tells me I can’t use my stamps to buy organic. The money I’m not buying in meat (or very little for my child) is often enough to help accommodate the increased expenses of allergies and organic since I don’t eat very much.

Cathy Wagner
Cathy Wagner
April 2, 2012 12:52 pm

I am still in disbelief that I had to go to this agency, and, as a (white caucasian) minority in CA, am extremely humbled to need SNAP. What they give me lasts about 2 weeks – I prepare all meals at home and NEVER go out to dinner. I am waiting for soc sec disability appeal, which may take years. SNAP doesn’t pay for toilet paper, cleaning products, friggin’ toothpaste or a $5 Costco prepared chicken, which I buy every week to stretch every penny. The one thing I treat myself to is an unhealty diet soda – one per day, no other sweets. Are you going to try to rule out cake mixes, sugar, splenda, etc.? I don’t even buy a package of cookies or crackers because $200 doesn’t go very far, especially with the oil situation and rising costs of food. Stop trying to make new stupid rules.… Read more »

February 18, 2012 12:05 am

I am 100% disabled from the VA, so I will mostlikely not be able to work again, but I still want off the food stamps. Lastly, I would just like to say if you have never been in a situation where you had next to nothing, and 3 kids to feed, you might chabge your tune on some of these issues, you need not judge people. I disagree with abortion, but it is funded by tax dollars and female rates of depression, personality disorders, and suicide increase greatly after abortion. Not to mention the fact that teenage girls, as low as 13 and 15 can now get abortions in some states with little counseling, no parental knowledge, and no follow up for mental health, sounds like a great place for tax dollars huh? I don’t judge these girls and I certainly would NOT be railing to ban abortion. I used… Read more »

February 17, 2012 11:46 pm

Me and my family have been on SNAP for a few years, and it has been nice to somewhat splurge in that area seeing as how we had nearly no money for anything else. I am an OIF veteran (3 tours), and after I got out, jobs were scarce and I have some serious issues from my combat duty. While I do get that high fructose corn syrup type sugars are extremely unhealthy, what about the sodas you can get from Sunflower that have natural sugars and flavoring with no hfcs? Also, my family recently made an investment in a sodastream machine so we could make our own, once again no hfcs. While I get that sweet foods are unhealthy, what comes next? No cake or cookie mixes? Will this lead to a ban on sugar? Plus, almost EVERYTHING you buy nowadays has hfcs, so you get sugar in almost… Read more »

December 11, 2011 12:12 pm

Every once in a while I hear someone complain about person using SNAP to buy steaks and seafood, and they’re all bent out of shape about it. You complain when they buy pop tarts and soda, then complain again when they buy steaks and seafood. Last time I checked, seafood was mostly good for you, and most people don’t eat it. If someone wants to use the assistance they have to buy 2 steaks and 4 lobster tails instead of 25 microwave pizzas, I don’t have any problem with that. As a matter of fact I would encourage it. Good for them.