In 2011, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamp program, served 45 million people, about one in seven Americans, at a cost of $72 billion, up from $30 billion just four years ago. Michele Simon, a public health attorney specializing in food politics, looked into where the money was going and, earlier this month, published her report “Food Stamps: Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?”
At least three industries benefit from SNAP, according to the report, including food manufacturers, food retailers and large banks, which contract with states to administer the benefits. The goal of the 28 page report is to provide “information needed to develop policies that ensure SNAP resources are used to reduce food insecurity and promote healthier diets, and not to subsidize the profits of the food industry or banks.”
On the issue of promoting healthier diets, Simon recounts what happened in 2010 when New York City requested a waiver to prohibit the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits. SNAP recipients can continue to buy soda, but not with federal funds. The food industry lobbied hard against it, of course. An estimated $75 million to $135 million in food stamp benefits are used to buy sugar-sweetened beverages in the city each year. The American Beverage Association, however, wasn’t alone in opposing the proposal. As reported in The New York Times, the Snack Food Association, the National Confectioners Association, which represents candy companies, and the Food Marketing Institute joined the fight, for fear that the proposal would set a precedent for government labeling foods as good or bad and banning other products from the food stamp program.
“While the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied New York’s request,” Simon writes, “other state and local policymakers around the country are also seeking more flexibility from the federal government. Several states have proposed bills similar to New York’s approach, to modify SNAP eligible items to promote health. But each time, the food industry fought these bills. To date, none have passed.”
Like New York City, California wanted to “modify the list of allowable food items” to exclude sugar-sweetened beverages, and Florida, in addition, moved to restrict “sweets, such as jello, candy, ice cream, pudding, popsicles, muffins, sweet rolls, cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobblers, pastries, and doughnuts.” Illinois sought to restrict “foods of minimal nutritional value,” as did Iowa and Texas. Oregon asked to prohibit “foods that contain high levels of refined sugar,” and Vermont urged the USDA “to authorize each state to create its own list of foods eligible for purchase” with SNAP funds. Again, all proposals were denied.
The business of naming healthy and unhealthy foods and thereby deciding which products are SNAP-eligible is extremely controversial. Anti-hunger advocates, in fact, “strongly defend the current policy of allowing participants to purchase (almost) any foods and beverages,” writes Simon. Food Politics author Marion Nestle says that they “fear that any move to restrict benefits to healthier foods, or even to evaluate the current food choices of SNAP recipients, will make the program vulnerable to attacks and budget cuts.”
Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, along with many candies, however, are of no nutritional value, and, worse, are likely one of the main contributors to the obesity epidemic. Shouldn’t federal funds be used to promote the well-being of society at large, whatever individuals choose to eat and drink with their own money? Aren’t SNAP benefits supposed to assist low-income Americans with getting back on their feet by ensuring that they get good nutrition? Sugar-sweetened beverages and candies do no more for the well-being and prospects of SNAP recipients than does alcohol, which has long been banned from the food stamp program. The sale of these products via SNAP does help, however, to line the pockets of Big Food.