New bill would stop SNAP recipients from buying junk food with benefits


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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides nutrition benefits to more than 42 million Americans. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has a new bill called the Healthy SNAP Act. It would restrict what kinds of foods are allowed to be purchased with SNAP benefits with an emphasis on removing junk foods.

By the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) own admission, unhealthy foods and beverages account for more than 20% of all SNAP spending. This is obviously bad for taxpayers, who are projected to spend $240 billion on junk food, with more than $60 billion going exclusively to soda, over the next decade. But equally important are the health consequences for those relying on a program that is meant to supplement their nutrition. After all, there is nothing ‘nutritious’ about a two-liter bottle of soda, a bag of chips, or an ice cream cake.

Rubio is partly inspired by the most recent Department of Agriculture’s SNAP purchases study from 2016 which shows 22.6% of SNAP households’ grocery bill is spent on unhealthier foods like soda, candy, and salty snacks. The data used for the study captured only transactions completed at a specific set of retail outlets and so is not a complete representation of the whole picture.

The study also found that non-SNAP households spend 19.7% of their grocery budget on junk food.

SNAP can be used to buy fruits, vegetables, meat, bread and snacks like soda and candy. It cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes, medicine and fast food.

Rubio wrote an op-ed about his bill for the Wall Street Journal and several people responded to it. Opponents are calling Rubio’s proposal government overreach.

More important, who is Mr. Rubio to be telling people what they can and can’t eat? I would rather let SNAP recipients use their accounts to buy what they want instead of empowering a group of food czars in Washington to tell them what to eat,” said one writer to the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Douglas Coldwell of Dallas said the proposal did not go far enough.

“It assumes that families who are using SNAP have the ability or the help to determine a nutritional diet. This certainly isn’t the case. I suggest a wholesale revamping of the program. Have regional nutritionists develop a balanced diet, relying on food available locally, then put it into family-size packages and distribute them through grocery stores or wholesale outlets,” Coldwell said.

A USDA spokesperson sent the following statement in response to Rubio’s op-ed:

“USDA strongly believes in the importance of a nutritious diet, and we are committed to encouraging all Americans to make healthier decisions when it comes to diet and food consumption. We all make many healthy choices, and we all continue to fall short of the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Research confirms that the food purchases of SNAP participants are similar to those of most Americans. The Biden-Harris Administration’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health supports creating healthier food environments and a healthier food supply so the healthier choice is the easier choice for all American families.

Rather than focusing on restricting choice, which would increase program costs and complexity and undermines the dignity of millions of Americans by assuming that low-income Americans are unable to make decisions that are best for themselves and their families, USDA has worked to make healthy choices more accessible and within reach for all Americans.

A key barrier to healthy eating is a lack of access or money to buy nutritious food. USDA’s re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan resulted in the first real increase in benefits in over 45 years, helping SNAP participants afford more healthy, fresh foods. Additionally, an increasing number of number of farmers markets accept SNAP benefits, expanding access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods by SNAP recipients while supporting economic opportunities for farmers and producers. USDA has also invested in programs that incentivize healthy purchases by SNAP participants.

Our growing incentive toolbox includes the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentives Program, Healthy Fluid Milk Incentives, incentive waivers, and the Electronic Healthy Incentives Project. Finally, USDA has strengthened our SNAP Nutrition Education program to better deliver evidence-based nutrition education to help all Americans make healthier choices.

Congress has talked about restricting SNAP benefits for some time now. Back in 2017, the House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing called “Pros and Cons of Restricting SNAP Purchases.”

The Food Marketing Institute’s president and CEO, Leslie G. Sarasin, said during the hearing that more restrictions would hurt the bottom line for food retailers with the changes possibly leading to slower checkouts for customers.

I would respectfully suggest that if our goal with SNAP is to provide needy Americans a short-term lifeline to allow them to get and keep a job so they earn enough to support their families without government benefits, the unilateral limitation of any specific product is unlikely to help accomplish that goal. It is worth noting that doing so will also increase the need for additional USDA staff to make and encode these determinations for an estimated 20,000 new products.

Rubio also addressed retail in his op-ed, saying, “Such a commonsense reform would promote healthier diets at no additional cost to the American people and, in the long run, reduce medical expenses. It would also begin to address the problem of food deserts in low-income neighborhoods. If soft drinks and sweets are no longer SNAP-eligible, corner stores and supermarkets will have more of an incentive to stock healthier foods.

In January, the USDA announced a $25 million investment for three states to run an incentive program for SNAP participants in their states. It encourages recipients to purchase healthy foods by providing a coupon, discount, gift card, bonus food items, or extra funds when they purchase specific foods like fruits and vegetables.

This program has been done before. The USDA says research shows SNAP participants who received incentives consumed 26% more fruits and vegetables per day than nonparticipants.

Some, like Rubio, would say that doesn’t go far enough.

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