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Lining the Pockets of Big Food with Food Stamps

Lining the Pockets of Big Food with Food Stamps

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.

Related Stories:

Fast Food Chains Lobby States for Food Stamp Allowances

Listen, Food Industry and Government: Consumers Want Quality and Fairness

Oh SNAP: Food Stamps Keep Millions Out of Poverty

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91 comments

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3:28AM PDT on Aug 5, 2012

The trouble with choice is it's not as free as you believe, when your subconscious and conscious are being persuaded by trillions of dollars that sweet soda's and fatty processed foods are good and there is no balancing campaing for fresh fruit and real vegetables - it's a one sided arguenent : The result being that your so called free choice is in fact nothing more than forcibly coerced into bad choices. There is NO FREE CHOICE without equally weighted information from both sides and that is something that no longer exists in corporate driven societies.
It is subtle, but the very weight of advertising erodes our freedom.
The obvious answer would be to tax all processed foods and the mnoney used to promote simple unadulterated foodstuffs which are the most healthy and cheapest way of eating and will never be championed because there is not as much profit in basic foodstuffs.

you do not have the freedom you think - it's an illusion

9:23AM PDT on Jul 15, 2012

don't legislate dietary choice

7:28PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

Nobody has the right to tell anyone what to spend their food stamps on. Next thing you know they'll be telling us we can't buy meat because that isn't healthy. This is horses...t.

2:21AM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

I'm on food stamps. I work. I am very under the poverty line. I cook, from fresh foods, because my son can't have MSG. The amount of food stamps I receive are NOT ENOUGH to buy groceries for a month. And what, the $20/mo that I spend on this so called "junk" is going to be taken away from me as a treat?

I'd like to see those who are complaining have the amount of pain that I have, barely being able to get up because my back and other joints are racked in such severe pain that I need help to get up, yet I go to my home care job where I help transfer people in bed, and what have you, just to ensure that I keep a roof over my son's head.

Then I cook from scratch, no prepackaged food, so we can try to be as healthy as we can with fresh produce, lean meats that get grilled, baked, grease drained, etc. Multi grain bread, brown rice, veggie pasta, and average 4 servings of veggies a day, because it's the right thing to eat.

Yes, I'm so dangerous to the overall scheme, but, hey, the $20/mo that I spend on baked chips, pound cake for strawberries, popcorn and unsweetened tea is none of your business. I am lactose intolerant, so I buy & brew Lipton tea bags to make iced tea. I buy my own supplements, which aren't cheep, yet I still have to add in another $150 of my own money because my governor cut funds to the food stamp program.

I only work part time, and my monthly income is $1200/mo for a family of 3. My hubby can't find a job because no one is hiring. Sur

12:11PM PDT on Jun 23, 2012

After reading thru the posts, I see some that are the same but posted on different days. They also were posted last year on different food stamp articles. I remember because, the viewpoint infuriated me then too.How many times do people have to told the poor have been and still are working and paying taxes. This crap about "useing MY tax dollors to buy junk food" is absolutely FALSE. When ever we come across that lie, I suggest it be flagged. No one should be allowed to get away with the continued spreading of bash the poor propaganda. I am also against the automatic bashing of the rich. Either viewpoint indicates indoctrination or paid trolls.
Dorthy and Laura, excellent posts. It seems petty minds complain if food stamp recipients buy snacks or convienence foods or if they buy high quality cuts of meat or pricey fair trade coffee.It all comes back to the false notion that poor people are poor because they're lazy or abuseing the system. Never that the SYSTEM has abused low income people. The food stamp program should be vastly expanded to include pet food and a larger monthly alotment and yes, it's going to line the pockets of big corps. It fills the stomaches of people who no longer live in a hunter society, or on small plots of land that can be farmed. Meeting the basic needs of it's citizens is not a 'Nanny State'. It is relience on the government out of necessity in todays world so just deal with it.

6:46PM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Mara, I know exactly how you feel !

5:23PM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

After reading everyone elses comments...I am speechless for once!

5:17AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Did you know that for *emotional health*, college health classes stress the importance of rewarding yourself for accomplishing goals.
yeah, poor people don't need emotional health, I guess. Not when the middle classes can experience the smug superiority of denying that poor kid a cupcake as a reward for becoming an honors student, or that 55 year old a cookie on the way to her job interview. Birthday celebration for grandma? Phaugh! Poor people don't deserve parties.
Or, we could think poor does not necessarily equal stupid and let them choose to finish their rice and bean dinner with side of greens with a bowl of pudding and not act as if it's the end of the world that they actually have one piece of their life they can enjoy.

12:22PM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

@Luvenia--great comment! It amazes me completely how so many "liberal" people on this site are all for keeping the government and other people out of my uterus and vagina (no quibble from me there), but have no compunction whatsoever about deciding what goes in my stomach. I mean, I've seen people on this site in all seriousness talk about BANNING out right soft drinks and even fast food restaurants from existing. What about my choice? What if I want to eat some french fries once every few years, or have a Krisp Kreme donut at a party?

Why does the stomach's freedom not get liberal support like the uterus? Both organs belong to me and no one has any business keeping things in them or out of them against my wishes.

11:57AM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

A million, billion stars to you Dorothy for your insightful posts. I can't agree with you more.
I swear your quote, "We need to stop buying into the corporate ideology that monetary worth defines human worth, and that the vulnerable are there to be bullied, restricted and controlled by their financial 'betters'." should be engraved on a plaque and sent to every politician be they Democrat or Republican.

The poor didn't just up and decide voluntarily, "I'm going to eat the worst food possible, because CEO's love it, and I hate healthy food--pooh pooh to celery!" There are greater systemic issues at work, issues that help CREATE poverty in the first place that lead to reliance on processed foods. A bag of chips on food stamps is the least of our issues. And yeah, I never got the toilet paper thing either. Basic hygiene care (necessary to getting a job) should be included in food stamps.

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