Should Food Stamps Only Pay for Healthy Food?

As you probably know the 2012 Farm Bill has food stamps on the block.  I write a lot about food stamps because they are incredibly important - one in seven Americans uses them.  One in four children is on food stamps.  When you subsidize food for this many people, you functionally transform the larger food system.  America, it turns out, subsidizes food just as many other nations do, because without it, people would be hungry.  Although food represents one of the smaller budget items for many Americans, an increasing number can't afford it.  The transformation of our society into one dependent on subsidized food is enormous - and it mostly passes unnoticed.

One of the questions on the table right now is whether food stamp use should be restricted to healthier, better quality food.  On the surface this SEEMS like a no-brainer - of course if the state is going to pay for food, the reasoning goes, it should be nutritious food.  So many state legislators have proposed, and there is noise about this among federal legislators:

So far, lawmakers in several states, including Illinois, have unsuccessfully pushed bills to make soda, chips and candy ineligible for purchase with food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Others have suggested that the program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could be modified as part of the current farm bill negotiations in Congress.

Supporters say that adding restrictions could divert billions of SNAP dollars from junk food to healthier choices, thus saving billions more in obesity-related health care costs, which are predicted by the government to reach $550 billion by 2030.

But just how many taxpayer dollars go to purchase soda, chips, snack cakes and candy each year? The USDA says it has no idea.

The USDA does not track consumption by food stamp recipients, but we all know that like most Americans, those poor enough to qualify for food stamps eat a lot of junk.  It makes people angry.  The problem is that we like to be angry at poor people, and I'm not at all convinced that limiting food purchases by quality would make us less angry.  Consider something I wrote about two years ago - the response that people have to those on food stamps who use those stamps to buy higher quality, higher priced organic or other food.  They are just as mad about that.  So the question becomes, what kind of food CAN the poor buy that will not subject them to scrutiny and judgement?

We see the problems of such a program in WIC, which is a dream program for people who want to prescribe what others should eat.  You can't buy soda or junk food on WIC.  But neither can you buy many really valuable and healthy foods, or the foods of many cultures.  What you get is a kind of neutral white-bread and juice model that is less healthy that what many of us will buy (we are eligible for WIC when we have younger foster children, but don't usually use it because the food choices don't match up with our own), but also precludes many of the higher cost, more nutritious items.  I could get juice, but not fresh fruit, grocery store milk but not local or organic milk.  The sizes, brands and costs are very specific, and mostly serve large industrial food - this is the model of "healthy' that WIC offers.  It is certainly healthier than the food many of the children in my care have been raised with, but it is also less healthy and offers less viable choice for us than we would really need.

I believe there is much that can be done in order to make better food more accessible to the American poor - from teaching nutrition and cooking in schools again for real, to community gardening to incentive programs like Michael Pollan's proposal that food stamps should pay double at Farmer's Markets.  What I don't think will work is a "healthy food only" policy that still mostly puts the enormous sums of money we pay on food stamps into big industrial "healthy" food.  Nor do I think that further stigmatizing poverty is a wise strategy.  We ultimately cannot expect the American poor to eat better than the American lower and middle class - changing food cultures is a deeper project that has to go across class lines.

What do you think?



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Today, I tend to think- it makes no difference what I think. Or say; or argue.

Have you noticed? All the discussion - around the WORLD - leads to : zero decisions; zero action. A la Rio.

We are in global societal gridlock.

And the MOST scary thing I've seen today is: Dow Chemical is already moving into the "societal decision vacuum". They've trademarked the word "solutionism" - and have a nice website up: where they cheerfully invite everyone to become engaged in fixing the worlds problems.

With Dow. I'm sure they've got an answer on food stamps, too.

I believe that food stamps should be used for food that nourishes. Period. Our society is getting to be a society of obese ill people. Diabetes is rampant. Working in a nursing home the residents we got were sicker and sicker and only in their 30's/40's. Not cute little old ladies anymore but people who had cut their lives short with their obesity,diabetes requiring dialysis, drug usage,etc. Residents over 350# were the norm and most new pts. were diabetic. As a nurse 40 years ago a diabetic was a a pts. without is the novelty. .Seems to me if folks can still manage to buy their cigs while getting assistance they can figure out how to buy their soda/chip fix.

I have been on stamps before d/t being out of work with pregnancy complications and actually had a problem spending them all! We had a big garden,canned jars and jars and weren't anywhere used to spending the amt of money on food as we were given for 4 kids. Junk food was something we didn't buy. Homemade was our norm. Finally spent the last on staples.

I worked with many young women(nurse aides) who received food stamps,too and all but one had gone thru them in the first ten days of the month. Only one woman had a list, shopped the sales and actually locked up the "goodies" so her 6 kids couldn't raid them while she was at work. Was often asked if I wanted to buy x amt of stamp value, usually half of their worth for cash.

By Diana Smith (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink

This is certainly a tough question. I can see both sides of this issue- my mom has done foster care for the last 10 years, and not one of the children in her care had any clue what a healthy diet was. More than one begged her to teach him how to cook so that when he went back to his parents he would have something to eat. But I also remember my days working as a cashier at a grocery store for minimum wage (it was under $4/hr then). I saw people buying pounds and pounds steak and boxes and boxes of treats with food stamps. I remember being angry that they could afford things like that when I was on a ramen noodle/frozen veggie diet with very little protein because I had so little money. I did see a few people using food stamps to buy healthy things, but not often.

I think limiting people's purchases is certainly an infringement of their rights, but I'm also not certain how to encourage people to alter their choice in any way that would be feasible. Some of the farmer's markets here have started accepting SNAP cards, so perhaps that will help.

By Cassandra (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink

Who defines "nutritious"? The "government" that pimp its Food Pyramid to Industrial Food producers? Look at the existing examples of programs that make "healthy" food choices for poor people.

I got WIC when my kids were small - I was too poor to even consider turning up my nose. I loved the milk, cheese, and beans - but all that juice? (In BPA-lined cans!) The commercial cereal? My grown kids still buy Life cereal at times, because WIC trained them to think of it as the only sweetened cereal I would let them have. Those are the government choices - specific brands of specific food.

My mother recently got the "green box" program , federally funded for low-income seniors. It was low-quality canned vegetables, jugs of juice, low-quality whole wheat pasta that was nearly inedible, boxes of wheat bran flakes, canned evaporated milk, and a loaf of Easy Melt cheese product. We did like the 3-lb bags of oatmeal. We used the cheese - we needed it. Was that healthy? It was sure better than starving. But heaven help people with wheat, dairy, or sugar issues!

Look at our changing perception of "nutritious." Is it low-fat? Low-carb? Low sugar? Which sugar? Which fat? Which grains? Organic? Gluten-free? Home-cooked? Some professional nutritionists fear home-canning, many fear raw milk. Many still think margarine and sweet "probiotic" yogurt drinks are healthy. Artificially-sweetened drinks and protein replacements are sold by weight-loss surgeons. The government insists hormones in milk are safe, and so are GMO foods, along with all the products of monoculture.

Look at the school lunch program, and the hideous choices it forces on schools with shrinking budgets. Look at the least-quality meat that is legally sold to school programs. The government itself cannot stop from promoting the poor food choices it IMPOSES with its regulatory and spending programs.

I sure do want poor people (including me) to eat better and have more food choices. And more time to cook from scratch and can. And access to community gardens to grow fresh food. Free community cooking classes to learn new shopping and cooking strategies.

But I do not believe that having "the government" decide what is "nutritious" is the place to start. Nor will it it save any money at all for the food stamp program. It is simply a form of punishing the poor for the "immorality" of being poor.

How about we start by making it easier to use food stamps at farmer's markets and CSAs? I love that idea of doubling food stamp value at farmer's markets. Let our food stamp dollars stay in in our food sheds, instead of going to grocery chains and Industrial food producers.

I disagree with the way we treat poor people with such moral condescension. I look at the enthusiastic and full-throated condemnation a poor woman buying oreos or an expensive cut of meat -- compared with the much more muted attitudes toward a middle class person making the same choices, and to me that changes social programs from being helpful and caring to being meddling and controlling and even mean-spirited at some level. If we were serious about improving the diet of poor people -- (rather than making it even more complicated and humiliating to be poor) -- we'd have a farm bill that lowered the prices of good, healthy food -- rather than a farm bill that is designed to make our crappiest, most unhealthy food even more cheap and accessible. (Sorry if I sound ticked off, but I spent all last week reading interview data of Americans talking about poverty.)

By Andy Brown (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink

The problem with defining "healthy" for anyone is that a) it varies from person to person, b) it varies from day to day as the science changes and nutritional fads come and go (the egg is the poster child of this problem), and c) it is far to easy to politicize the process.

Look at all the grief California has gone through with the "snack tax," trying to fiddle with it to achieve a consensus on what is and is not a "snack" versus food. Here in Alabama, it would be helpful if they didn't put a sales tax on any kind of food.

While, no, I don't want to see tax dollars used to help people buy food that inevitably leads to more tax dollars spent to address their health problems, I think Andy is 100% correct. Fiddling with food stamps is a distraction from the overwhelming amount of policy designed to increase access to unhealthy food. Penalizing and restricting people who need food isn't helpful -- fixing our broken food system will be.

On one hand, I can see some good sense in saying "you can't use food stamps to get candy, chips, cookies and soda." It doesn't seem unreasonable to set a few restrictions on the uses of food subsidies. Those items are pretty inarguably junk food, though some are less junky than others. It would certainly make food stamp allotments last longer for many people. I'm not for saying "you MUST buy X," because that's way too much of an infringement on people's lives. I can also understand how a little pleasure like a chocolate bar or a soda or dessert can brighten your day, and if your life is already rather grim, it would seem extra harsh to have someone else take away such small pleasures. It's thing to DECIDE to abstrain and save the money for something more bottom-line useful, but I can see a revolution if thousands of already struggling moms are deprived of their coffee or the occasional chocolate bar.

Sharon, in a slightly more useful response to your very sensible topic- though still rather sideways, as is my wont-

What do you think about addressing the Food Stamp Question, partially, by having us all acknowledge that it is, in fact, reality, truth; a form of rationing.

Yes; we, the American People, are already rationing; both food and health care. But so far, we go to astonishing lengths to avoid admitting it. On the contrary, we mostly deny it bitterly, and threaten revolution if rationing ever happens.

But it's here; it's fact. We ration food to our people. Wouldn't we be better off facing that fact publicly? Rationing - has known aspects to it; including the instant creation of black markets in forged ration books and illicit products. Those things go on with Food Stamps, as Diana here pointed out already from her personal experience.

Would calling a spade a spade help? Dunno. I think it might; and I think it wouldn't hurt.

I agree with Tracy up thread. We are asking the government - THIS government - the one completely beholden to the likes of Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and Monsanto, to decide which "healthy" foods are okay for food stamp purchases?

Even though I agree that some purchases are "bad" - soda for example, we open a real Pandora's Box when we allow the government to select healthy vs. unhealthy food. I think we already do far too much of this as it is.

On another matter, I had a FB friend post a newspaper clipping comparing food stamp "free meals" to the Dept. of Interior's "Do not feed the animals" in the national parks request. (Here it is on some linked-to guy's FB page:)… On the face of it, of course this newspaper clipping from some reader is funny, but the hate and misunderstandings that non-poor have about the whole subject is reprehensible.

Of course, many people who see me object to items such as this newspaper article or see Sharon and the rest of us objecting to shopping limits on food stamp purchases then merely assume we are ultra-left-wing socialist, government-apologist wackos.


I posted a link to this blog entry of yours to the FB post anyhow :-)

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink

As one of the seven Americans on food stamps, I must admit I'm a bit alarmed at the notion of restricting it to "healthy" foods because, indeed, who determines what's "healthy". Can I buy regular soup, or do I have to buy a low-sodium brand? Regular milk or 2%?

Then again, it seems a lot of taxpayers would object to how I use my stamps, anyways. About 70% of my food shopping is done at a local farmers' market - and this being northern California, most of the food on offer is organic and therefore a bit pricier. A local program doubles my scrip, up to $20 per visit, so the money goes quite a bit further.

Ironically, I'm definitely eating much healthier now than I was before I went on the program, because processed and junk foods simply cost far more than fruit and veggies, so I don't buy them.

I just wish protein wasn't so costly - I'm getting awful tired of peanut butter and chicken. Still, I'm lucky - I only have to support myself on this award, not an entire family...

In England there are no food stamps - the poor get cash. There is a system of milk tokens for infants and pregnant or nursing mothers (which can also be used for baby formula) but there is no suggestion that we should control how the poor spend their cash benefits.

By Freedomgardener (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink

I wonder if we admit that it's a rationing program then a rationing program should apply to the basics ie unprocessed food. Staples.

I wonder what that would look like in practice.

Where I'm at my local farmer's markets all accept food stamps except one. That one is sponsored by large local corporations and is in a prominent place. The cost for producers to have a booth there is double what it costs at the other local markets, I have a friend who quite her booth there and is direct selling her meat CSA style. Funny how that works.

This doesn't apply to me here in nz either as we get an allowance in cash for being unemployed and that is that but I would like to say.....what g'd given right do we have to tell anybody else how to live their lives. Especially those who have no choice because there is no full employment and precious little decent employment.

If you want to ration soda, do so but for every one not just an unfortunate group.
I much prefer our system that teaches home economics in school myself (this happens here still around year 7 and 8 after which it can be taken as a subject for the rest of your schooling if you wish). It's not perfect by any means but does help a little.

viv in nz

By knutty knitter (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink


I keep thinking back to the premise that food assistance, just like unemployment benefits, and housing subsidies, is intended to keep the poor acting and spending like they were middle class. And, of course, voting for the "good guys" that got them their handout.

That said, the problem I see with mandating "healthy" foods runs in two directions. First, mass media still dictates what "normal" means to American society. And soda, chips, etc. are all highly marketed and consumed. Second, the government has this illusory "food pyramid" invented, without underlying confirmation, science, or truth, to promote the US dairy industry. And the food pyramid supports industrial agribusiness -- hormoned meat, GMO grains, etc.

The greater problem is that people eating unwisely don't know better, they have no better resources than the families that raised them, their friends and neighbors. Maybe TV and YouTube. Just changing the program will just deny people in need food, while changing the way foods are marketed -- maybe ban sugared, fried, salted foods from advertising -- the food issues wouldn't be issues in the first place.

On another note, John Tesh's "Intelligence for Living" notes claim that shorting yourself on sleep causes you to eat more. And that sitting six hours a day, including vehicle time, causes the hormones generated in the butt and legs to over-store body fat; being vertical, walking, tells the body not to store more fat.

Some time back, Mr. Tesh mentioned research that showed doing mental work -- homework, video games -- causes the body to get hungrier, though the body hasn't consumed a corresponding number of calories.

We know that artificial sweeteners cause the body to prepare to process sugar in our food, but since there isn't any sugar, then the body tends to store body fat.

It must be fifty years ago or more I heard a WHO-Chicago program claim that the ice cube is the most dangerous food on the American table. The stomach, when chilled, stops processing food, and stays halted until the stomach and contents are again warmed to body temperature.

We have to concede that exercise has nothing to do with weight gain or loss, marketing for health clubs, classes, and gizmos notwithstanding. Exercise, in moderation, does increase strength, endurance, and agility. And the rule is move it or lose it, for better or worse. But exercise itself isn't a solution to obesity.

Dr. Wahl's Kale On A Stick diet, with three cups of veggies (colors, high sulfur, and greens) for each meal with beef once a week would seem extreme to many Americans.

So I figure the program is intended to mimic middle class lifestyle, not some idealistic notion of good nutrition. And putting a finger on what is good nutrition, with respect to any given American, and it gets complicated.

I'd like low income families to stop wasting their food stamps/benefits (UK) on crappy food, but then I'd also like everyone in my (mostly) middle class village to realise a children's lunchbox with a sliced white bread Nutella sandwich and a packet of crisps doesn't become healthy by putting a probiotic yogurt in it.

I think many recipients would (understandably) bristle at being told what to buy, if a definition could be reached, and most would either a) not want to eat what they could buy and/or b) not know how to cook it.

A friend who assists in the local secondary school told me of how pleased a pupil (not necessarily low income) was to be doing 'real cooking'. They were boiling pasta and heating up a jar of pasta sauce.
My generation were taught limited cookery in British schools, the generation after me even less (but they know how to design and market pizza packaging!)

I have another insight to offer, Sharon, which I'd be glad to have you consider, in between diaper changes. :-)

I teach marketing sometimes, among the other things. One of my seminal examples of where neophytes can see very sophisticated and pure marketing technology at work is - the "chips" aisle in big stores. Every Target/Walmart has an entire, huge, aisle dedicated to chips and their derivatives. They are sold very aggressively, as we know, and changed frequently (basic marketing; change sells), so someone watching can track those processes.

And the insight I offer my classes, which always gets a bemused "Aha!!" reaction from them (very gratifying) is that chips are NOT "food", and are not sold as such. They are "entertainment" - and marketed - as entertainment.

Chips are not sold as providing nutrition, but as providing thrills. "It's like a party in your mouth!", sort of thing. If it weren't for the children's market aspect, I suspect the chip makers would long ago have gone to the sex ploy: "Ménage à trois Doritos!" would sell well; and "Better Than A BJ Ruffles!" They may go there yet.

Once you realize that, a great deal of food fog clears up. Not that it would help the Food Stamp dilemma at all. But it can help personally, with understanding your own reactions and choices.

So- should Food Stamps be used to buy entertainment? Movie tickets? Really, probably not. But disentangling intertwined products is, at this point, simply beyond us.

I think we have the wrong idea of what constitutes "deprivation".
For health reasons, I recently switched to a vegetarian diet, also limiting intake of dairy products. It is turning out to be really inexpensive. One can get one's daily protein intake from things like nuts and beans. Sure, there are some things one needs to supplement, like Vitamin B12, but many products, like soy milk, are B12 fortified.
People vastly overestimate the amount of protein actually necessary for good health, largely due to inaccurate information from the 1950's, still in general circulation today, and well-marketed by the industrial food corporations.
How many other sixty-year-old nutritional misunderstandings are out there ?
100 years ago, the basic diet consisted of mostly plant-based foods, local fruits and vegetables in season, and possibly meat on special occasions. Candy was a special treat.
Advertising has led us to believe we are "deprived" if we don't get our daily fix of meat, coffee, soda, chocolate, etc etc.
Honestly, if we are to have any kind of healthy future at all, we have to let go of all the marketing mumbo jumbo, and start understanding what really constitutes nutritious food.
I believe food stamps should be used to promote healthy, nutritious food, and it doesn't have to be expensive, but if people are going to consider themselves "deprived" for not having a daily hamburger, fries and a large soda. finished off with an chocolate milkshake, we are not going to make any progress at all.
Food programs ought to go hand in hand with educational programs to better inform people's choices, and we should be encouraging the use of simple foods such as beans and whole grains, while discouraging the use of processed foods, which have most of the nutritional content stripped away. This means having sources of healthy foods in "food deserts" where people only now have fast food choices. Urban farms are taking off - they should be subsidized, and people should be able to use food stamps there for produce. Programs can get kids and parents involved in how to grow and prepare healthy food from scratch.

Sally; "Food programs ought to go hand in hand with educational programs"

Actually, if I recall correctly, in a previous Food Stamp discussion right here a couple years ago, it was suggested (maybe by me) that rather than standard government "education", a program of peer mentoring could be far more effective. Not the social worker explaining life to you; but the more experienced lady up the block sharing rides and recipes and stories.

I've been thinking a lot about food insecurity lately, given there's some thought to the San Joaquin Valley's poor being the equivalent of Appalachia's.

I see a lot of urban families employing food stamps at the local cut rate grocery, don't generally see poor choices or obesity, but do see a lot of returns of items that can't be paid for at the check stand. To my way of thinking, the problem is how far the outlay goes, not whether it is expended on 'good' food.

Some cost savings might be realized through preparing meals from scratch rather than prepared meals (junk food?), but this may reflect a lack of available time to carry out three or four hours of preparation, after all just because you are poor does not imply that you are unemployed. The other is supplementing food stamps with an urban gardening program providing those on assistence the opportunity to raise both fresh vegetable, and possibly eggs or dairy.


Greenpa: "Not the social worker explaining life to you; but the more experienced lady up the block sharing rides and recipes and stories"
I fully agree. That's why I like the urban farm model. People in the community can volunteer time, especially the kids, . and it's a great opportunity for mentoring by the more experienced members. Also, it can work across income barriers. After school programs, weekend programs, all help to support and strengthen communities. example "Growing Home".
Great way to get kids to experience good food, instead of being in the grip of food marketers all day long.
Malnutrition is no longer the domain of the financially poor. Seems to me it runs up and down all the levels of society.

here in western oregon, the oregon food bank sponsors a series of classes for folks eligible for food stamps called "healthy eating on a budget". the 6 weekly classes address most of the issues mentioned above. it includes label reading, basic understanding of what nutrients are needed and why, and most important, practice making wholesome, tasty foods from scratch. students go home with recipes and ingredients. awesome classes taught in english and other languages common to this place.
as for rationing, i have one of my mother's ration books from WWII. it has little tear off stamps for different product catagories. if food stamps were like that, perhaps it would allow choice but encourage healthy catagories of food. and i love the idea that stamps are worth double at farmers markets.

I am sad to see the militant vegan myths being spread here. Meat was NOT just for special occasions 100 years ago. Here is a link to NPR.

"Almost two centuries ago, he says, meat was one reason why immigrants found America so amazing. "When the Irish come in the 1840s, they write letters back saying 'I eat meat every day,'" Horowitz says. "And they get letters back saying, 'You must be kidding. It can't be true.'"

Back in Europe, says Horowitz, the growing of livestock was often organized and regulated in a way that funneled meat straight to the wealthy or the landed aristocracy. In the new world, though, meat was much easier to find. Grazing lands were close to cities; sometimes right inside cities. Farmers quickly realized that raising animals was a good business. Cities set up markets for them. "And the result is a flourishing of the livestock industry, very early in American history.""

At one time I was on food stamps I was divorced, had a low paying job, no child support from my deadbeat ex and I always used my stamps to pay for healthy food for my kids and myself. I was lucky to find a wonderful man so I was able to look forward to a better life and was able to get off food stamps. I went to work later at 7-11 and people would come in an buy Big Gulps with their food stamps this really irritated me and still does, I was on food stamps they helped me to feed my kids healthy food not junk food. So I think the rules should exclude soda pop, candy and other junk food.

As a recent grocery store employee, and a currently unemployed, but seeking employment, person I would like to chime in here. When it comes to the question of food stamps, we, Americans that is, whose taxes go to pay for the food people buy on food stamps have every single right in the world to determine what can and can not be bought with food stamps. Just as we have the right to stand up and say no to the idea that people should have cash loaded onto said card that can be removed easily to pay for anything they want to spend it on.

My personal opinion is this, food stamps should ONLY be allowed to be spent on whole foods. Fresh produce, meats, milk, eggs, cheese and whole grains. Nothing from the center aisles of most grocery stores should be allowed. No processed foods, no candy, no junk food, damn sure no soda and other drinks that are full of nothing but empty calories.

I can personally attest to the fact that the majority of people on food stamps squander their money on junk food, either because they are ignorant of the health effects as well as basic knowledge of how to actually cook a meal, or because they are lazy. In the last grocery store I worked in I feel it was a mixture of both. I can honestly say that in one day I sold more junk food to people on food stamps than I sold whole food to people actually paying for their own food. How sad is that?

You can all stand there and say it is an infringement on someones rights to tell them what they can and can not buy on food stamps, but this is what I ask you. What happens to my rights to determine how my tax dollars are being spent? What happens to my rights to stand up and say, enough is enough with the health epidemics in this country that are being propagated by a system that simply allows people to go out and buy pretty much whatever they wish with other peoples tax dollars and then also use public assistance to pay their healthcare bills when their obesity related illnesses land them in the ER?

At some point we just have to say no, we have to stop handing out free money to spend on anything and everything people want. Instead we have to focus on getting them what they need. What will help them to grow and become healthy and strong so that they can return to the workforce and care for themselves. I have no problem helping those that need help, and I am in fact a proponent of democratic socialism ala Star Trek's form of government where all the daily necessities of life are assured for all people, but again we have to say enough is enough. We have to start educating those on welfare, we have to stop allowing the bad habits to continue, and reinforcing good ones. Only then will we move forwards towards that brighter future.

Food stamps are in part a farm subsidy program. Should one be able to buy cherries grown in Chile with them? It is interesting that many argue that individual citizens know how to spend their money better than the government does. Except when food stamps or some other government aid program is discussed, of course.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 10 Jul 2012 #permalink

@Carl -- man if there's a "right to determine how my tax dollars are spent," lead me there! But seriously, calling food stamps users ignorant and/or lazy and then insisting that it is our right and duty to discipline and improve these failed people is exactly the rationale that's been used for a couple hundred years to create America's particular cocktail of demoralizing poverty and scolding, self-satisfied privilege.

By Andy Brown (not verified) on 11 Jul 2012 #permalink

When is a candy bar "healthy"? When it's a granola bar! Sure, it may have some whole grain, maybe some dried fruit - but it will also have corn syrup and a bevy of other unhealthy ingredients.

Agree with Andy, and Tracy.
Also, insisting people can only buy certain kinds of food assumes that, A. They're living someplace with access to all this wholesome food; not all Americans do; B. They have the means to cook it -- i.e. working electricity, a working stove, pots and pans, and C. the knowledge to cook it.
So what happens to the ones who lack one or more of those items? Do we call them immoral, and let them starve?
Then, too, as Tracy noted, it's a slippery slope. WIC stopped allowing potatoes -- a nutritious, filling, inexpensive food -- because they're currently a favorite society scapegoat. As was bread a few years back. And pasta.
It's a tragedy that people aren't eating healthy, nutritious food. But a moral failing? The story is so much more complex than that.

Yes, "healthy" foods! Sugar-laden yogurt, granola bars, cereal, muffins, juice ... There's even sugar in peanut butter. And have you read the label on a can of baked beans?
I don't think the chips are the problem. This just isn't a case of here's our solution, in three easy steps.

Story Problem time: I have $100 on the EBT. I can buy 10 days of "healthy", or 30 days of nutritionally hollow, yet belly-filling crap.
And it doesn't matter what you buy with food stamps. the woman behind you with $75 worth of cat food for her 15 cats is gonna look down her nose at you anyway. SHE'd never use food stamps, even after the cats are all dead and she buys $75 worth of cat food a month instead of weekly...

By Jack of most Trades (not verified) on 11 Jul 2012 #permalink

I apologize for excessive comments; it gets annoying, sorry, but forgot to mention that I thought Sharon also had an excellent point about the poor being resented for buying food that's "too good," too. Really, what are we wanting to say? You may eat rice and beans, only. Plain rice, mind you, no basmati, because that's just getting above yourself. And twice a day; lunch is an extravagance. Plus 4 ounces of orange juice on Sundays. And you'd better act sufficiently grateful for it .

Thank you NM, and thank you Sharon. We assume that everyone has a normal working kitchen, and that everyone can cook beans and whole grains from scratch, and that this diet would be appropriate for all poor people all the time. Just try cooking beans in a battered old microwave with no turntable, or on a hot plate that cycles between over boiling and lukewarm every 5 minutes. (I've tried cooking in both, and there were a lot of foods I simply didn't eat during that time.) Now do it after you've spent a long day at a crappy job and another two hours on the bus, with kids running around.

I admit I have qualms about funding soda, since unlike the granola and such it truly has no nutritional value, but my eyes were opened a bit more when my husband was diagnosed with diabetes. This means, of course, that when times are tough I still can't feed him on beans and rice all the time, even though we have a nice kitchen now, and it also means that when his blood sugar plummets he needs quick sugar immediately, which occasionally means running into a convenience store and buying a soda and/or a candy bar. Who are we to decide what a diabetic recipient of government aid must be eating at any given time? At the moment we have the budget and the time to buy and prepare a lot of organic veggies and raw sprouted foods, nuts, organic chicken, etc, but when times were tough, it was really hard looking at the single organic apple at Trader Joe's and knowing I could get 4 sweet rolls at the Mexican grocery down the street for the same price.

If we really want people to eat better, we need to change the way our food is subsidized. I love the idea of food stamps counting double at farmer's markets, and I'm all for changing the farm subsidies to encourage the production of (and lower prices for) healthier food. I think a soda tax would be great too, especially if the money from the tax could be put back into helping people afford healthy food. But dictating what aid recipients must eat seems wrong to me. Besides, who decides? As others have pointed out, eggs used to be demonized, now it's potatoes. Coconut oil and dark chocolate are "superfoods" at the moment, and dairy, soy and wheat are villains for many.

For those who are sure that we should be micromanaging other people's diets, think for a moment about how you feel when people criticize yours. Whether you're king of the barbeque or a raw vegan, it's happened to you, it made you feel like crap, and it probably didn't change your eating habits. Now think about how it feels if you don't have the money or the time to feed your family what you'd like to be feeding them, and someone demands that you eat a certain way regardless of your personal circumstances. Would you appreciate and be receptive to their efforts to help and educate your family?

Well ultimately I agree with you Sharon, I try really hard not to judge what others purchase because I don't know the information they've been given on food or the type of environment they were raised in.

I don't like the idea of restricting food choices, because even someone buying ice cream/chips might be doing it for her children who asked for a special treat--we just don't know the circumstances.

I love the idea of food stamps being easier to use at CSAs and Farmer's Markets, I think promoting healthier eating is more effective than discouraging junky eating. Then the only issue would be how to market the information so that it appeals to low-income individuals.

I do think that it would be okay to ban soda though, but I think soda is pretty much the root of all evil. ;)


There may be no restrictions on what they can buy currently, but there was an idea mooted recently to issue the money on supermarket-specific cards instead. Because the poor never buy from markets/independent grocers... (/snark)

Yes- SNAP should not pay for soda or candy. Let's just start there. I agree that prescribing which foods can be purchased with SNAP can be problematic, just like it can be with WIC. But just making a rule that SNAP can't be spent on candy? I really don't see a problem with that. People can still buy candy, they just can't do it with food stamps. Why would that be bad? However, given that food stamps exist partly as part of the subsidy to industrial farmers, including corn farmers who make HFCS, I really don't see this happening.

"But just how many taxpayer dollars go to purchase soda, chips, snack cakes and candy each year? The USDA says it has no idea."
Interesting. Maybe because they haven't asked. Until a few years ago I worked in IT for a large supermarket chain. That data has been available for analysis internally for a couple of decades but I never heard anyone asking for purchase data patterns by tender type. Might be interesting to look but that data is jealously guarded by each company.

In any case I think it would be not right and a foolish waste of time and money to try to limit purchases. The simple mechanism of barter allows anyone to purchase what they wish with SNAP.

A really interesting paper from the Food Research and Action Center that discusses food purchases and effects on health of SNAP. Good chart on page 13 that says basically that the mix of categories purchased for at home consumption doesn't vary much by income.

No soda pop on food stamps - PERIOD. In fact, I think it would be a great benefit to get rid of soda pop altogether. Seems like you can only eat so much candy before you throw up, but pop? No discernible satiation point, not to mention it becomes a pacifier for teenagers and grown-ups. Ick. Get rid of it.