If one Republican congressman has his way, the days of buying soda or Twinkies with food stamps will be over.
Representative Phil Roe (R., Tenn.) introduced on Tuesday a bill that would require food stamps to be spent only on nutritious food. Roe, a doctor, said in a statement, “By giving SNAP recipients more nutritious choices, we can take a meaningful step towards ending hunger in America.”
Currently, food-stamp recipients face fairly limited restrictions: They can’t spend the stamps on alcohol, cigarettes, medicine, vitamins, or prepared food. In case the purpose of “food” stamps wasn’t obvious, using them to buy makeup, household items such as soap, or pet foods is also prohibited. (Prediction: In ten years, we’ll be debating whether increases in government subsidies for pet food for animals who live with low-income families are too minimal.) But junk-food items — from soda to cookies to sweets – can be bought with food stamps. The Department of Agriculture’s website states that “soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items.”
And people do buy them. According to a 2012 study conducted by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the federal government is spending a whopping $1.7 billion to $2.1 billion on just the soda purchases made by those using food stamps. According to some polls, there is widespread public support for banning soda purchases with food stamps: A 2012 survey published in Public Health Nutrition found that 69 percent of respondents wanted “sugary drinks” added to the list of ineligible items.
Roe’s bill would change the model for food stamps to that used by the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides food benefits for mothers with young children. WIC has significantly more restrictions on it, to ensure that mothers and children get sufficient calcium, grains, and fruit.
Take the cereals approved for WIC recipients in New York State. The list has about 13 national-brand cereals but excludes sugary favorites such as Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch. You can buy peanut butter but not “peanut butter mixed with jelly, marshmallow, chocolate or honey.” Frozen vegetables are fine, but forget ones that replicate the McDonald’s experience at home: “French fries, hash browns, tater tots,” and “other shaped potatoes” are all banned. Canned fruit with “any syrup (heavy, light, ‘naturally light,’ extra light, etc.)” or “added sugar (‘lightly sweetened in fruit juice,’ etc.)” is off limits. In other words, the strict parameters of the WIC program make it virtually impossible to spend the government-issued funds on junk food.
At the state level, there have been previous attempts to restrict what can be bought with food stamps. In 2011, when New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (who else?) wanted to ban using food stamps to buy soda, the Department of Agriculture rejected the proposal. Wisconsin and South Carolina earlier this year proposed initiatives to ban junk-food purchases with food stamps, but both efforts have stalled — and with the USDA’s long history of denying such proposals, it looks like any successful effort would need to be implemented on the federal, not state, level.
Some argue that placing restrictions on food stamps is a nanny-state stunt. But there’s a huge difference between a government’s banning an item and a government’s refusing to subsidize an item. Few conservatives would support banning cigarette sales — but it’s hard to imagine that the Right would support a federal subsidy to help low-income Americans buy cigarettes.
Shifting food stamps to a WIC model would help ensure that taxpayer dollars are helping ease hunger, not satisfying junk-food cravings.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.