Do Food Stamps Need More Restrictions?

By Marion Nestle

The food stamp program, now known as SNAP, could be redesigned to encourage healthier choices.

Food Politics
Food stamps from 1955 (Wikimedia Commons)

While Congress is fussing over the farm bill, Michele Simon's new report, Food Stamps: Follow the Money, identifies the businesses that most stand to gain from the $72 billion spent last year on SNAP. This program, formerly known as food stamps, gave 46 million Americans an average of $134 per month to spend on food in late 2011.

Just as health and anti-obesity advocates are working to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy by getting the farm bill to promote production of healthier foods, they also are looking at ways to encourage SNAP recipients to make healthier food choices. At present, SNAP recipients have few restrictions on what they can buy with their benefit cards.

In contrast, participants in the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which is not a farm bill program, can only use their benefits to buy foods of high nutritional value. The idea of requiring SNAP recipients to do the same has split the advocacy community.

Anti-hunger advocates fear that any move to restrict benefits to healthier foods, or even to evaluate the current food choices of SNAP recipients, will make the program vulnerable to attacks and budget cuts. They strongly oppose such suggestions.

Follow the Money explains some of the politics behind efforts to maintain the status quo:

  • Food industry groups such as the American Beverage Association and the Snack Food Association teamed up with anti-hunger groups to oppose health-oriented improvements to SNAP.
  • Companies such as Cargill, PepsiCo, and Kroger lobbied Congress on SNAP, while also donating money to America's top anti-hunger organizations.
  • At least 9 states have proposed bills to make health-oriented improvements to SNAP, but none have passed, in part due to opposition from the food industry.
  • Coca-Cola, the Corn Refiners of America, and Kraft Foods all lobbied against a Florida bill that aimed to disallow SNAP purchases for soda and junk food.
  • Nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars in one year.
  • Walmart received about half of the billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma over a 2-year period.
  • J.P. Morgan Chase holds contracts in 24 states to administer SNAP benefits.
  • Banks and other private contractors are reaping significant windfalls from the economic downturn and increasing SNAP participation.

The point here is that banks that administer SNAP have a vested interest in keeping SNAP enrollments high and makers of junk foods have a vested interest in making sure that there are no restrictions on use of benefits.

Another point: data on use of SNAP benefits exist but are either proprietary or not made available.

The report concludes with these recommendations:

  • Congress should maintain SNAP funding in this time of need for millions of Americans;
  • Congress should require collection and disclosure of SNAP product purchase data, retailer redemptions, and national data on bank fees;
  • USDA should evaluate state EBT contracts to determine if banks are taking undue advantage of taxpayer funds.

I've not seen this kind of analysis before and this report deserves attention. At the very least I hope that it will encourage Congress to make sure that the poor get their fair share of SNAP benefits.

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This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.



This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/do-food-stamps-need-more-restrictions/258493/