FERN Reports: SNAP Judgment—Behind the Scenes on Limiting Junk Food via Food Stamps

While Democrats and Republicans publicly fight over the farm bill that funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, another debate simmers behind the scenes: Should the program limit purchases of junk food by food stamp recipients? Reporter Jane Black, a columnist for the Washington Post, investigates for the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and Slate in their latest collaboration, “SNAP Judgment.”

Black reports that while some mayors, lawmakers, and public health advocates have pushed for restrictions on items like soda, anti-hunger groups have pushed back, fighting any limitations to the program. She explains that anti-hunger groups argue that such limits would stigmatize food stamp recipients and be too complicated given the number of items in the supermarket. Meanwhile, public health advocates contend that the anti-hunger groups have a conflict because they receive funding from food companies that also oppose any restrictions.

“In June, Bloomberg and 17 other mayors, including Newark’s Cory Booker and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, sent a letter imploring congressional leaders to allow limits on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, which account for 58 percent of beverages purchased by households receiving SNAP benefits,” Black reports. On Aug. 1, 54 national and local health groups called on the USDA to allow pilot programs to explore banning soda and other unhealthy foods from SNAP purchases.

Black reports that 47 million Americans, half of them children, receive SNAP benefits—up 67 percent from four years ago—and both groups want to see these low-income Americans eat well. Both groups also want to protect SNAP benefits from Congress, which, in a best-case scenario, aims to cut the $78 billion annual program by $4 billion over 10 years.

She reports: “According to an April 2012 poll commissioned by the Harvard School of Public Health, 69 percent of respondents—who included both the general public and SNAP recipients—supported removing SNAP benefits for sugary drinks; that number only dropped to 54 percent when counting only SNAP recipients. And of the 46 percent of SNAP participants who initially opposed removing sugary drinks, 45 percent would change their position and support the policy if the new rules included additional benefits to purchase healthful foods.”

She concludes: “Add those two groups together, and you have a big majority of food stamp recipients who are on board to edit some of the junk out of their grocery list. And in this debate, aren’t they the most important coalition of all?”

Read the full report on Slate and on FERN’s Web site.