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Should The Poor Be Barred From Buying Junk Food With Food Stamps?

| February 26, 2017

junk food stamps

Doesn’t get much junkier. But is it fair to impose different nutritional standards on the poor than those others follow, which are not dissimilar? (© FlaglerLive)

At the food pantry she founded in poor, rural Quitman County, Mississippi, Angie Crawford spends her days teaching food stamp recipients how to shop, cook and eat healthy on a tight budget.


Then, at the grocery store, she sees people using food stamps to buy junk food, like big bags of potato chips in bulk. It troubles her.

As a nutrition educator for the federal Food Stamp Program — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — Crawford is one of many public health officials across the country who say there should be more rules about how food stamp money is spent.

Twenty-three cents of every food stamp dollar is used to buy candy, desserts, salty snacks, sugar and sweetened beverages, according to a November report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that for the first time revealed purchasing habits under the program in detail. The report, along with the election of President Donald Trump, who may be more inclined to tighten welfare rules, has reignited a long-standing debate on whether the government should allow people to use food stamps to buy unhealthy food.

Lawmakers in at least five states — Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico and Tennessee — introduced bills this year to ask the USDA for permission to ban the purchase of certain kinds of food or drinks, such as candy and soda, with food stamps. Since the USDA administers the program, states can’t create their own restrictions. But the department can give a state permission to conduct a pilot to test new ideas — something it has so far been unwilling to do.

Many public health and medical officials have supported the idea of restrictions on junk food for years, saying the program was meant to supplement nutrition but is instead feeding into the country’s unhealthy habits and worsening the obesity epidemic.

But usually when states consider the idea, they decide against it. Already this year, the bills in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee have been withdrawn or killed.

The idea sounds appealing to people who don’t know much about nutrition or how the program works, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a nonprofit that aims to reduce hunger. The proposals often fail, she said, once lawmakers find out how costly and complicated they would be to implement, including how to determine which food items should be restricted and how to create a database and keep it updated as new products come out.

FRAC and similar groups that fight to end hunger, along with organizations representing merchants, are fervently opposed to restrictions, saying that along with being burdensome to implement, they are also unlikely to change eating habits.

The USDA has so far denied all requests from cities and states to ban the purchase of certain kinds of food using food stamps. In blocking Minnesota in 2004, New York City in 2011 and Maine in 2015, the agency said the proposals were not specific enough or wouldn’t provide a sufficient evaluation of success.

But Mary Mayhew, Maine’s Health and Human Services commissioner, and other officials think there may be more interest from the federal government under the Trump administration. Mayhew said the new administration “understands the importance of the integrity of these welfare programs.” She said she plans to resubmit the state’s request for a waiver soon.

Congress also is reconsidering restrictions as it considers changes to the U.S. Farm Bill of 2014. But at a hearing last week, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, warned that the issue isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

“I think the underlying issue is all of us in the United States do a bad job of deciding what to eat,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “We could all use some guidance. But I’m not sure that the government is the way to provide that.”

Targeting Food

In Arkansas, where about one in three adults is obese, state Rep. Mary Bentley, a Republican, introduced a bill this year to ban the purchase of unhealthy food using food stamps, saying she is concerned the state is “enabling” the increase in obesity and diabetes there.

But the bill failed to make it through the Senate after merchants complained it would be too costly to implement. Bentley said she is now working on changes to make the bill more specific.

That could mean restricting only certain types of unhealthy food. But it’s very hard to judge an individual food item for how healthy it is, Vollinger said, as it could be judged on sugar, fat or sodium content — which would all give you different results.

A 2007 USDA report cited a “slippery slope” when it comes to evaluating food items. For example, the report noted that soft drinks have less total fat, saturated fat and sodium per serving than some granola bars.

At the congressional hearing last week, Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association that represents grocers, told members that tens of thousands of food items would need to be reviewed to determine whether they should be restricted, including “an estimated 20,000 new products every year.”

Pilot Program

In Maine, Mayhew said the results of the recent USDA survey underscore the importance of placing restrictions on the program.

In the state’s 2015 request to the USDA, it asked for permission to ban soda and candy from the program. In response, the agency asked the state to provide more information about how it would measure the success of its program, but never heard back, said Jalil Isa, a department spokesman.

stateline logo analysisMayhew said she wouldn’t characterize what happened in that way. She said that the state and the USDA had “a circular debate” about the proposal, and it was clear to her that the department didn’t intend to grant Maine’s request.

Many public health officials, such as Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, say the best way to approach the issue is with a state or local pilot program.

“The question is how to do it in a sensible way that doesn’t damage the SNAP program, because the program is important for food security,” O’Hara said.

Public health organizations like the center for science, and groups aiming to end hunger like FRAC, are all advocates for food stamps. But the topic of restrictions has pitted them against each other. Public health organizations have pushed for restrictions, saying the current rules endorse unhealthy habits. But groups aiming to end hunger are against restrictions, saying they are too costly and complicated and wouldn’t change eating habits.

Their disagreement is fueled by distrust, said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

Groups fighting against hunger often receive funding and resources from the food and soda industries, which may be hurt by the restrictions, Schwartz says. The organizations’ dependence on the industries may influence their advocacy, even subconsciously, she says.

“There is this relationship there that you don’t want to mess with,” she says. “That’s where it gets really tricky.”

FRAC, for instance, receives funding from many major food industry organizations or foundations, such as the General Mills Foundation. But Emily Pickren, a spokeswoman for FRAC, says donations from the food industry do not influence the organization’s position, and they are not the reason that the organization opposes the restrictions.

Rob Litt, a spokesman for General Mills, said the organization is committed to improving access to nutritious and sufficient food worldwide. “We have a long history of working closely with nonprofit partners to advance these mutual goals, not on advocacy initiatives.”

Schwartz is also fearful that some advocates for a ban on unhealthy food simply see it as a vehicle to cut the size of SNAP.

Carrot and Stick

Vollinger and others say the way to get people to make healthier choices is more education for food stamp recipients and more incentives for them to make healthy choices. There is already federal money set aside to encourage people to buy healthy items with their food stamps, including one that increases the value of food stamps when they are used to buy fruits and vegetables.

In a recent paper, Schwartz suggests that the best way to find out if food restrictions make people healthier is to test the idea at the state level by giving people on food stamps the option of participating in a program with restrictions that would reward them for buying healthy food such as fruits and vegetables.

“My point is: it doesn’t have to be either-or,” she said. “It’s kind of like good parenting. You want to put restrictions. But at the same time, you want to promote the good behavior you’re looking for.”

The optional program would make the idea less offensive to opponents who think the idea of restricting food stamps is disrespectful because it doesn’t allow people to make their own choices.

But if the idea is really to change eating habits, Vollinger said restrictions are not the way to go. The average person stays on food stamps for a relatively short amount of time, she said, so it won’t bring long-term behavioral changes. It’s most common for food stamp recipients to receive benefits for about three to four years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Healthier Habits

In Mississippi, where a bill was introduced earlier this year but then failed, everyone could benefit from a healthier diet, said Beth Orlansky of the Mississippi Center for Justice, an advocacy group that opposes the restrictions.

Traditional cooking in the state uses many unhealthy ingredients, such as bacon fat, Orlansky said, and people need to be taught how to cook with healthier ingredients.

It’s also harder to eat healthy if you live in high-poverty areas, where there often is limited access to fresh food. In Mississippi, counties with high rates of persistent poverty or high rates of people on food stamps tend to have higher rates of obesity and mental health problems, according to a recent study yet to be released by researchers at Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Limited access to fresh food, coupled with eating fast food or food with a lot of calories or sugar, makes people predisposed to obesity, said Leslie Hossfeld, director of the Mississippi Food Insecurity Project at Mississippi State University and a co-author of the study. Placing restrictions on food-stamp purchases, she said, ignores the problem of access to healthy, affordable food.

Mississippi has the highest amount of food insecurity in the nation — one in five people have limited or no access to fresh food. In Quitman County, in the northwest corner of the state, Crawford said some people have to drive 20 miles one way to get to a grocery store with fresh food. About one in three adults there is obese.

She teaches her clients — many of them single parents — how to make good use of the food they do have, such as rubbing salt off canned green beans. She gives clients a healthy recipe they can make with the donations they receive from the pantry, and she teaches them the importance of preparing food ahead of time for the week.

“It’s trying to get them to see that it will take more effort and more time,” she said, “but it will be better in the end.” 

–Jen Fifield, Stateline

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47 Responses for “Should The Poor Be Barred From Buying Junk Food With Food Stamps?”

  1. Fredrick says:

    Should be some good comments here…..
    I’ll start…. the food stamp program is actually a tax payer subsidy to the junk food industry and also various parts of the medical and insurance market place.

  2. Richard Smith says:

    There is WAY more fraud within the food stamp program that needs to be addressed than to worry about what foods the people are purchasing with the stamps they received fraudulently. Remove the fraud and you will reduce the percentage of junk food being purchased with the stamps. Trump will remove the fraud unlike what previous administrations have been unable to accomplish. People who are truly in need of food stamps generally have a decent knowledge of what foods they should purchase to exist and stay healthy. It’s the people who are scamming the system that could care less as to what foods they purchase because the stamps are just gravy to them.

  3. Duncan says:

    Absolutely! A protozoa would agree! Basic common sense! The USDA is totally ignorant or are in the pocket of the Fast/Junk Food Industry to allow this to go on. Its unbelievable that it was ever allowed; I seem to remember that it was not allowed when I was a kid. Now you see people using food stamps to buy candy bars. The USDA might as well be putting a bullet in the heads of the poor and tax payers should not be funding heart disease.

  4. Wishful Thinking says:

    Common sense says the more junk food, processed sugar etc you consume the more likely you’ll get diabetes, develop heart condition, be overweight and then what? Along comes MEDICAID – more of our tax money to try to keep you around longer and making doctors rich…,
    Yes, either ban junk food altogether or allow only .50 cents of junk food for every dollar of food stamps.. That should work also.
    We are not on food stamps but we shop very very smart – veggies and fruits at the open markets or discount grocery stores – they are all over the country. Not only are we eating healthy we are getting a lot more good natural food for less money. You can’t use food stamps for wine or beer so why should they be allowed for any food which is not necessary to survive? Unless of course the junk food lobbyists have lots of political clout…..

  5. W.Ryan says:

    It’s simple human nature. Pleasure and reward vs. strife and pain. We don’t need a nutritionist to see what is at the core of this dilemma! Lets take some of the sweets away from Corporate America for their savvy advertising and our ever evolving food charts.

  6. Gkimp says:

    Food stamps, the # 1 cause of type 2 Diabetes.

  7. IML8 says:

    It should be ran like the WIC program that based on family size you would get so much milk, bread, cereal, peanut butter, fruits, vegetables, meats. No monitary value should be given just amounts of things like WIC does. It would also solve the other issues related to food stamps.

  8. GrGrMommy says:

    Husband and I love babies, habit of saying hi and talking to little ones. Got behind couple checking out groceries. She was pregnant and had small child we said hi, beautiful baby. She was dressed very nicely, good gold and silver jewelry. Basket filled with lobster, steak, shrimp, lots of good stuff. We had kids, and our basket was full with what we could afford, chicken, hamburger potatoes, ect. No problem, nice kids, nice people. Then they paid with food stamps, and loaded their stuff into a very expensive sports car.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Yes. Only staple foods should be allowed to be purchased. The food stamp program was meant to be a temporary relief program for people down on their luck for because of loss of job, sickness or accident that caused the inability of a person not to be able to feed themselves or their families. I have seen people in the check out line at various stores buying what I consider to be gourmet foods with their food stamps and then walk out of the store and put their groceries in a car newer and more expensive then the one I drive. Some of these people really have figured out how to “work” the system. Also I believe if you get ANY government assistance you should be tested for drug abuse. No one wants any child or adult to go hungry in this country, but it burns my ass to see healthy competent to work people, take advantage of a system designed to help the truly needed people it was created to help.

  10. Leslie says:

    Almost 40 years ago, my family and I were on foodstamps for about 9 months. At that time we had to buy our food stamps. The amount you paid was based on the amount of income and assets you had. I know that has changed and you only get what you need based on your income and assets. It was then and it is now a huge place for fraud and abuse. When I got them, I asked if there was some service I could do for the government to pay for the share that I got. I only got a snicker and a “That’s impossible.” for an answer. Back then I paid $60.00 for $80.00 of food stamps. That was for two weeks for four people.. Well at that point $80.00 for two weeks of food was a lot more than I was used to. I bought staples such as flour, dried beans, yeast to make my own bread, sugar, and some meat and oatmeal. Stuff like that. I saw other shoppers buying cakes and cookies and sugared cereal and chips and other junk and they complained that they didn’t have enough food stamps. I got off as soon as I could because I could tell they were making me dependent and that is something I didn’t want to be. At every turn I was told that I was probably eligible for some other sort of welfare. When my husband lost his job and I couldn’t get one, we kept on paying the $60.00 for the food stamps. The social worker came to our house to re-evaluate our situation. She wanted to know if there were any changes. I neglected to tell her about my husband’s job loss. Later she called. I didn’t have a phone because we couldn’t afford one, so she had to call my neighbor to have me call her back. That annoyed her. She started yelling at me because she found out about my husband’s job loss and telling me that I could have gotten free food stamps. I told her that I was aware of that. She wanted to know what we were using to pay for the food stamps that we had. I told her that I had always saved and during the time we had saved about $5.00 per week of my husband’s $80.00 weekly check. I knew that a lay-off was possible. I told her that we were using the savings to be less of a burden on the taxpayers. She yelled again at me and told me that I had screwed up her bookkeeping. I told her that I didn’t care and I wanted to be as small a burden on the taxpayers as possible. I think welfare is important to any government, but without education to help them use the welfare properly for their health, is wasted. The best welfare is helping people to learn to help themselves. Educate them on bad food choices, both for health and for the pocket book. Educate them how to get better jobs. Educate them to have smaller families and to take care of the ones they have. True charity is teaching, not giving.

  11. Veteran says:

    Don’t hear much from the liberals. They probably believe everyone should get free food and medical care. Oh hell, just let the government take care of everything!

  12. anonymus says:

    I think they should put a law into effect changing what people can buy with food stamps as well as ween out the people who are committing fraud. I know a woman who has 7 children, refuses to work & has everyone else supporting her & her 7 children. This woman gets $900 a month in food stamps & sells $400 of it. She does not go food shopping, instead, when her children are hungry, she sends them across the street to the gas station to buy hot dogs & junk food for their meal. The government needs to start making people accountable for their actions, not dependent on welfare!!

  13. Richard Smith says:

    @GrGrMommy – a lost opportunity to report flagrant fraudulent use of food stamps obtained through a welfare program. With Trump at the helm people like that will have to answer for their actions and not only pay restitution but a massive fine too. For those that can’t pay up well a long stint in jail will give them plenty of time to think about how they screwed over everyone who really needed the food stamps.

  14. no says:

    They don’t deserve to be treated with our money

  15. Duncan says:

    If you must resort to using vague labels I consider myself much more liberal then conservative on such matters. Is everything black or white to you and nothing in between? I guess it’s your view that any social program is just about getting free stuff from the government, it certainly not possible that some actually use programs such as food stamps as a way to get back on their feet in hard times. As a Verteran, assuming that you are based on your handle, you get free or near free medical care don’t you? Deserving perhaps but guess who pays for that healthcare.

  16. Julie says:

    I have friend who is on food stamps and buys nothing but organic healthy items that are too expensive for a normal income, thanks to food stamps her and Family are eating healthier and better she never used it to buy candy or sodas,for her kids, so everyone is different.

  17. A.S.F. says:

    Yes. The same goes for folks receiving Medicare since current American workers and tax payers are funding the medical care that is made ever more expensive by their poor eating and nutritional habits.

  18. Rich Mikola says:

    Of course not! Why should I care how they spend my money.

  19. Just shaking my head says:

    Junk food should NOT be allowed at all!! No cookies no chips no candy.. just healthy meals that you prepare

  20. really says:

    “We an all use some guidance, but I’m not sure the Government should provide that” Really? Provide the funds, just not the advice…

  21. Dave says:

    Junk food is a privelage

  22. Sw says:

    Food stamps, free medical, lunches,College whats the problem……

  23. RayD says:

    Too complicated to decide what is or is not healthy and enforce/administer it. Just time limit FS like cash benefits.

  24. JasonB says:

    Once again, conservative logic on display, only care about what happens to a fetus, but once it’s a real, live, breathing person, they don’t care if it eats or gets medical care.

  25. Veteran says:

    Well SW, the problem is you can pay 50-75% income tax to pay for it and the ones that sit on their ass all day reap the benefits.

  26. Outsider says:

    I have several friends who work in local grocery stores. The stories of abuse are non-stop and disgusting. One man purchased a cake, soda, chips, etc. for a party. It was all paid for with EBT. Another had to advise a woman, who had great nails and jewelry that certain items were not eligible for the WIC or whatever it was. Without having the courtesy to end her phone conversation, she threw the certificate in my friend’s face and said, “Well then you figure it out.” I went into a convenience store and saw bright labels above the candy display: “EBT accepted!” Maybe now with common sense in government the abuse will be put to an end.

  27. Duncan says:

    I totally agree that fraud within all entitlement programs should of the highest priority (even though it will likely cost more to manage fraud than what is lost to fraud.)

    Government assistance programs should be administered with the highest integrity; that includes unemployment, SSI, disability, Section 8 housing, VA benefits and food stamps. Fraud is rampant in all of these assistance programs and it allows some to become life long dependents of the government robbing their off spring of opportunity.

    Equally important, it angers those that fund these programs (and have obviously hardened the hearts of other by the tone of some of these comments.) It defiantly needs to be cleaned up; but lets hope that the programs remain intact. Perhaps some of these harsh and unjustified commenters will find themselves on the other side of the equation at some point in their lives.

  28. The Ghost of America says:

    I think there’s a good argument to be made that if you are on public assistance you should be required to spend your money on healthy food. That way you lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and the like. This should apply to people that get foodstamps as well as social security.

  29. Sherry says:

    Of course ALL JUNK FOOD should be completely “OFF THE SHELVES”. . . not only when being purchased with food stamps, but with dollars in any form, by ANYONE. . .as well ! Just take a close look around at all the unhealthy, obese people in our country. The cost of health care is sky rocketing, not only because of the “private insurance” system. . . but, also because we are voluntarily eating poison!!!

  30. Dutch says:

    Why not? If Michelle Obama can tell us what to feed our kids, then the government can tell assisted people what they can eat….

  31. JimBob says:

    I sense some hostility toward the poor in these comments from some of the regular posters from the Dylann Roof Republican Assembly of Palm Coast. Let me suggest that birth control, free and universal, pill and condom can alleviate some of this problem and should be encouraged and made available beginning in junior high. Now, if only some of our so-called Christian churches would get on board….

  32. Mark says:

    Is everybody that gets food stamps poor?

  33. Knightwatch says:

    I am appalled at what I see here. Some quote long-debunked conservative bullet points. Some are downright insulting to people who, unfortunately, are poor. Some are pure drivel and not worth the effort to refute because you can’t argue stupid. But I now know why Flagler went crazy and voted in the cheeto buffoon.

    I expect you all consider yourselves good Christians.

  34. Katie Semore says:

    This would be just another way to discrimination against the poor.

  35. Katie Semore says:

    GrGrMommy, that story is old as the hills and twice the lie that the big one that got away is.

  36. Jacques DuBois says:

    Can someone please tell us why it has taken over two years to renovate Holland Park and they’re still a long way from completion ?

  37. woodchuck says:

    Couple in front of me on line pay for there groceries w/food stamps also bought beer and a carton of cigarettes with cash nice!

  38. Richard Smith says:

    When I am shopping with MY hard earned money I have every right to purchase anything that I want. However when a person who has applied for government financial assistance and has been approved legally or in some cases fraudulently then they do NOT have the right to purchase anything they desire. I believe that our federal and state governments have every right to mandate what can be purchased and what cannot. It would be very easy to manage that requirement by issuing Food Stamp money with a debit card similar to what some states are doing with unemployment checks. If someone attempts to purchase a product on the unapproved list when the cashier scans the bar-code it will reject the product. There are unemployment ATM/Debit cards which will not work in any casino or certain ATM’s.

  39. PCer says:

    It is cheaper to eat junk food than it is to eat healthy. That is why people on food stamps and people in poverty buy crappy food. It is not a matter of not eating well, it is a matter of eating to no longer be hungry and having enough food to go for a long time.

  40. no says:

    Wikipedia and Google searches are not evidence

  41. beachcomberT says:

    If the government insists on being food police, then how about going back to the good old days, when people lined up on the streets for their monthly bags of commodities — generally cheese blocks, peanut butter, flour, rice and a few other staples. Maybe we no longer have surplus food programs. If so, we could hire poor people to put together box lunches of nutritionally correct meals. Anything to make sure no poor kid ever gets a candy bar or a Coke.

  42. Fredrick says:

    Knightwatch as a Christian we say be charitable and teach a man to fish. As a liberal you want to give him fish after fish to keep him under your liberal control.

  43. Katie Semore says:

    So much hatefulness from people who are so sure they are right. Is this WJWD?

  44. History says:

    Is it just me or does the use of the term “the poor” sound a bit medieval? Besides the fact that you don’t have to live in complete poverty to get food stamps, honestly many people live well and still get them (sad, but true). In reference to banning “the poor” from getting junk food with food stamps, I do not think we have that right. I believe there are more proper methods we can use to change people’s health choices without forcing it. In fact, free nutritional seminars in Palm Coast might benefit us all with all the fast food restaurants we continue to build here. The fact of the matter is all of America has a problem with junk food, you can’t single out one group of people for enjoying sweets or chips once in a while unless you are also trying to find a way to save the country in itself. Plus, people would have start trading their food stamps for junk food like they do for alcohol and cigarettes.😉

  45. Richard Smith says:

    If people are well off and “living well” and still receive food stamps then that is fraud. Food stamps are for the “poor” who cannot afford living well. Look up what the eligibility requirements are – I’ll do it for you – https://www.benefits.gov/benefits/benefit-details/1244 and then tell me that people who are living well should be receiving food stamps.

    The point is people who are receiving FREE welfare should be required to follow the rules and if that means no junk food with Food Stamps then so be it. I don’t receive ANY free welfare and if I want to buy junk food that is MY choice.

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