A “healthy” food stamp, or just a heavy hand?
Published: Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 23:06
CHICAGO - On a recent steamy holiday weekend, customers at a discount grocery store in Evanston, Ill., loaded their carts with bags of chips, boxes of cookies, 2-liter soda bottles and jugs of fruit punch - among other items - then paid for it all with food stamp credit.
Although some may be surprised to see “nutrition assistance” dollars going to buy food with little nutritional value, it’s perfectly legal under federal rules.
Some politicians and health advocates want that to change, saying restricting food stamp purchases to healthier items would encourage better diets, reduce health care costs and make better use of precious tax dollars.
Critics of the idea say such proposals are condescending, probably wouldn’t be effective and would stigmatize aid recipients.
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.
“They don’t keep track of what is purchased,” said Republican state Sen. Ronda Storms of Florida, who introduced a failed bill to restrict junk food purchases. “How then ... does the state know whether the purchases are for legal items and not, say, toilet paper, magazines, beer, et cetera? Ask that question and you might hear the crickets chirping.”
One California watchdog group released a report this month suggesting that this lack of transparency covers up what amounts to billions of dollars in corporate welfare to junk food makers and other companies at a time when Congress is contemplating blanket cuts to a program that provides crucial assistance to hungry people.
“We don’t have the information because there are huge economic interests who prefer this information to remain secret,” said Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics, who wrote the report. “It’s convenient for USDA to say that we are not authorized to collect information on what people buy with food stamps, but the truth of it is that Wal-Mart knows exactly how much was spent on what.”
The USDA has so far opposed restrictions on junk food purchases. Although government data have linked poverty to higher obesity levels and more soda consumption, the department’s website says: “No evidence exists that food stamp participation contributes to poor diet quality or obesity.”
Simon counters that’s precisely why the data are needed: so the public, researchers and policymakers can determine if the program is contributing to poor diet quality and what programs - if any - can improve that.
USDA representatives say the department is “interested in understanding the food purchase and consumption choices of SNAP clients, but relies on other data sources such as national food consumption surveys” that don’t break out statistics on SNAP participants.
Still, in recent months the department has explored a more focused approach. This year the USDA will launch a feasibility study on gathering point-of-sale data for SNAP recipients. And, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the department has contracted with a private company to examine proprietary retail data with the goal of learning, among other things, “what food items are most frequently purchased with SNAP benefits.”
USDA officials caution, however, that none of that information about SNAP recipients’ choices will “tell us anything at all about how they would spend their money if restrictions were imposed.”
There’s no question that, in a time of lean budgets and class tensions, data on SNAP purchases could be a political hot potato. Simon acknowledges that some observers might use it to “judge and stigmatize” SNAP users.
“This would be counter-productive especially when cuts to the program are being considered,” she noted in her report. “But fear should not keep us from accurately evaluating the effectiveness of SNAP, particularly given the program’s potential for positive impact.”
Supporters and opponents of the bans are remarkably diverse groups, with conservative fiscal hawks and liberal public health advocates both tending to favor the idea. On the other side are not only large food corporations and anti-regulation conservatives but also groups working to feed the hungry.
“We believe that choice leads to dignity and that individual choice should not be impeded,” a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository wrote in an email to the Chicago Tribune. “We provide food for hungry people and help people access SNAP without placing judgment on their choices.”
Simon and other critics note that many of these groups receive significant funding from food manufacturers. The depository’s top donors include Kraft Foods and Sara Lee, and funders of the national Feeding America organization, based in Chicago, include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods.
Regarding the potential conflict of interest, Feeding America responds: “We advocate for policies that are in best interests of our clients - the people who use the programs. Our policies are not driven by our donors.”
Kraft and Coca-Cola each referred the Tribune to an industry association for comment. The Coalition for Preserving Food Choice in SNAP/Food Stamps, which includes the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, issued a statement saying: “Rather than limiting food choice and layering over an already complex program with additional hurdles for recipients that may cause stigma and result in confusion and nonparticipation, efforts should focus on nutritional education, access and outreach.”