Reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, automatically kick in today as a result of the expiration of provisions the 2009 stimulus bill. Meanwhile, Congressional leaders are debating what further cuts will be made to the program as part of negotiations over the farm bill. Republicans are pushing to make benefits less generous and to increase work requirements; Democrats disagree.
An issue that hasn’t gotten as much attention during these debates is what food-stamp recipients are able to buy with their benefits. Public health advocates like Michele Simon have long argued that the lack of restrictions on the types of food aid-recipients can buy has helped fuel an American health crisis caused by unhealthy eating. Writes Simon:
“Much attention has focused on how agricultural subsidies fuel our cheap, unhealthy food supply. In reality, the largest and most overlooked taxpayer subsidy to Big Food in the farm bill is SNAP, which now represents more than ten percent of all grocery spending.”
So what exactly can SNAP recipients buy with their benefits? There are a few restrictions, against alcohol, and tobacco for instance. But curiously, most junk food is fair game, calling into question whether the “nutrition” in SNAP means much to lawmakers at all. Here are just a few of the items one can buy:
- Red Bull
- Sugary Soda
- Mixes for alcoholic beverages
- Artificial sweetener
Of course, big agribusiness is complicit in the structure of the food stamp program. Simon gives the example of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to bar food-stamp recipients from buying sugary soft drinks with SNAP dollars. Big companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola fought back against the measure, which was ultimately vetoed by the Department of Agriculture, saying that the measure would be unworkable.
But take a look at the current restrictions the Agriculture Department places on food stamp use, and it’s difficult to understand why proscribing junk food purchases would be all that difficult. The list of items that one can’t buy with food stamps but that are also commonly found in supermarkets is extensive, including the aforementioned alcohol, but also pet food, ornamental gourds, and prepared foods. Why would barring junk food be functionally different than barring alcohol?
Hunger advocates have pushed back against food-stamp restrictions. But as Simon points out, Walmart and other corporate beneficiaries of SNAP spend millions of dollars each year funding anti-poverty groups. This is laudable, but it is also perhaps a way to fund advocacy initiatives that dovetail with these corporations profit motive as well.