Should Food Stamps Buy Soda?

The problem with increasing health-oriented restrictions on what can be purchased
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(jeff_golden/flickr)

Blanca Salas, a woman in McAllen, Texas, stretches her $430 in monthly food stamp benefits to buy food for herself and her five children, yet her entire family is developing diabetes and other health problems, as the Washington Post reported this weekend. Obesity and diabetes are growing in places like Hidalgo County, even though food budgets are increasingly meager.

Many of the reactions, perhaps expectedly, linked poverty and ignorance.

“The reason food stamp recipients are obese and unhealthy has nothing to do with the amount of food stamps they receive,” one commenter wrote. “It has far more to do with their ignorance of a healthy diet and being too lazy to actually cook healthy meals.”

Commenters aren’t our nation’s finest talking heads, of course, but they’re far from alone in thinking that simply trimming the types of food that can be purchased with SNAP will resolve the health issues that many food stamp recipients face.

Rather than say, suggesting not cutting benefits in the first place or creating incentives for food-stamp recipients who buy more produce, the conversation still frequently reverts to what beneficiaries shouldn’t be buying. The problem is, the rhetoric is often tinged with the implication that SNAP recipients are being reckless or ignorant as they attempt to stretch their meager food budgets.

Everyone from health advocates to conservative pundits have urged states to better regulate the items that should be eligible for purchase under SNAP. Tennessee Representative Phil Roe introduced a bill last month that would require food stamps to only be spent on nutritious food. In a statement, he said, “By giving SNAP recipients more nutritious choices, we can take a meaningful step towards ending hunger in America.”

It’s a rare lawmaker who argues that government regulations which limit individuals’ options actually grant people “more choices.”

Justin Danhof, from the National Center for Public Policy Research, explained to NPR’s Michel Martin that he supported prohibiting food-stamp soda purchases, even though he opposed a similar action on a wider scale:

“I think Mayor Bloomberg's efforts in New York City to limit soda size was wrong because he was limiting that for everybody.” (Everybody, not just poor people.)

No one can dispute that soda is not nutritious, and food stamp recipients might be better off if they bought less of it. But the no-soda debate distracts from some of the major obstacles that SNAP participants now face.

One-sixth of the country, or 47 million Americans, currently rely on food stamps to eat. Their monthly food budgets have been cut by about 5 percent, or $36 for a family of four, starting this month.

Here’s a quote from Ingrid Mock, who says she can no longer afford to buy coffee:

“I try to get most of the things my daughter eats because I can hold the hunger — I’m an adult — but she cannot,” she told the New York Times. “They don’t understand when there’s no food in the fridge.”

Nearly 6 million families without cars live in food deserts, areas where grocery stores are more than half a mile away. Some of the subjects of the Post story said they’d have to drive 10 or 15 miles to reach one, so they rely on bodegas and other mini-marts that often lack canned, let alone fresh, produce.

Meanwhile, the cost of soft drinks has fallen precipitously in recent decades compared to the prices of fresh vegetables, dairy, and meat. Buying one less bottle of Coke might still not add up to one extra head of lettuce.

(Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)

There’s no clear evidence that food stamps contribute to obesity for most of the program's participants, or that limiting what people on food stamps could eat would induce them to lose weight. We also don’t know how much people on food stamps spend on different types of products, because the U.S. government won’t release the data.

Furthermore, what is unhealthy? Gummi bears? Or the baguette dunked in a mug of olive oil that I’ve been known to devour on days when I don’t feel like cooking? A Yoplait yogurt contains almost as much sugar as a similarly-sized soft drink. Can policymakers successfully determine whether the viscosity of  high-calorie-yet-nutritionally-dense Odwalla smoothies qualifies them as a beverage?

In a 2012 poll, 46 percent of SNAP recipients said they oppose soda being removed from SNAP-eligible purchases, but nearly half of them said they’d support such a move if they were granted extra money for healthy purchases instead. Banning soda or other sugary foods might ultimately be the right public health move, but the trick to doing so would be to avoid making it harder for SNAP recipients to get by on an increasingly tiny pot of money.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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