Advocates of healthier eating are asking the federal government to evaluate and restrict what people can buy with money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
The public health watchdog group Eat Drink Politics issued Food Stamps: Follow the Money on Tuesday, a report that asks the federal government to make changes to the SNAP program. The report analyzes the influence of food lobbying groups over SNAP policy at the state and federal levels, and urges the federal government to provide more information on the healthfulness of what consumers are buying with SNAP funds.
SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and spent $71.8 billion in 2011, up from $30.4 billion in 2007 because of high unemployment and the faltering economy. The Eat Drink Politics paper is the latest development in a decades-long battle over whether federal anti-hunger efforts should also encourage healthy eating habits.
“It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s paying attention that we have an epidemic of diet-related chronic disease in this country,” says Michele Simon, the president of Eat Drink Politics and author of the report. “It’s wrong for the federal government to be fueling that epidemic through the subsidized sale of junk food and a no-holds-barred approach to what can be purchased through the SNAP program.”
Follow the Money's Findings
The report sheds light on how powerful food lobbies and federal SNAP policies intersect. For example, at least nine states have proposed bills to make healthy improvements to the program, but none have passed. Simon says that's because of food lobbies. Coca-Cola, the Corn Refiners of America, and Kraft Foods all lobbied against a Florida bill that would have outlawed SNAP funds for soda and junk-food purchases. In 2011, the USDA denied a proposal by New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban SNAP purchases of sugary drinks in New York City. (Bloomberg has since countered with a proposed city ordinance to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, which does not fall under federal jurisdiction.)
SNAP funds also largely benefit corporations, the report contends: Walmart took in more than $200 million from food stamp purchases in Oklahoma in 2011, for example, while JP Morgan Chase holds exclusive contracts to administer SNAP benefits in 24 states.
"Given the huge stakes for the food and beverage industry in the debate over SNAP purchases, lobbying has played a critical role in shaping public policy," Simon wrote in the report. "Unfortunately, due to reporting rules, it’s difficult to paint the entire picture of exactly who lobbied and how much money was spent against any one proposal."
Follow the Money argues for continued Congressional support for SNAP funding and federally required collection and disclosure of SNAP purchasing information.
What Americans Buy With SNAP Funds
For the past decade, the USDA has said it is not cost-effective to track what people buy with SNAP funds. But a USDA spokesperson told MSNBC that it is launching a feasibility study to track purchases cost-effectively. The spokesperson also said national data exists showing that the diet of the average SNAP fund recipient differs little from the diet of higher-income Americans.
Recipients of federal food subsidies are allowed to purchase the following types of food:
Breads and cereals
Fruits and vegetables
Meat, fish, and poultry
Food-producing seeds and plants
Food items, such as soda, candy, cookies, chips, and energy drinks with nutritional labels
Households cannot use benefits to buy:
Alcohol or tobacco of any kind
Any nonfood household item, such as pet food or toilet paper
Vitamins and medicines
Prepared hot foods
Foods that will be eaten in the store
In Michigan and California, restaurants that serve homeless, elderly, or disabled populations can accept SNAP benefits from qualified recipients, the USDA says.
In contrast to what SNAP users can buy, the USDA-administered Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) fund requires participants to purchase nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, only. (WIC spends $6.7 billion annually.)
Many anti-hunger advocates are hesitant to impose such restrictions on SNAP, fearing that the program will be subject to political attacks and budget cuts. Those advocates stress that SNAP's top priority should be helping as many people in need as possible.
"The No. 1 goal is to make sure people aren't hungry," Simon says. "But that doesn't mean it should be the only goal." - Everyday Health