A student recently pointed out this 2007 document (.pdf) from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), arguing that the Food Stamp Program -- now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- should not have further restrictions on eligible foods. [Update 10/23/08 4:30 p.m.: sentence corrected to clarify the date of the document].
I really do not know whether the list of eligible foods should be narrowed, but I had some questions about the reasons given in the document. Here is the agency's list of reasons, along with my own observations and questions. To make the discussion concrete, let us ask how well these arguments serve to justify including caloric soda and candy with food stamp eligible foods.
1. No clear standards exist to define foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.
This is a traditional food industry slogan, used when it helps to put off criticism, but entirely ignored whenever it suits a marketing message. What the industry hopes is that nobody will ever call a food "bad" or "not healthy," but that consumers will believe the industry's exaggerated health claims for fad foods. That history does not implicate FNS, of course, but it takes the shine off the argument. Would it really be so difficult to justify defining eligible foods in a way that left out caloric soda and candy?
2. Food restrictions would pose major implementation challenges and increase program complexity and costs.
Currently, there is a code in the retailer's inventory system identifying whether a product is eligible or ineligible for food stamps. Checkout staff must already be trained in subtle distinctions. For example, rotisserie chicken served hot is ineligible, but dressed and ready-to-cook chicken is eligible. In what sense would administration be more difficult if caloric soda and candy were ineligible?
3. Restrictions may not change the nature of participants’ food purchases.
The FNS document discusses the fact that many participants are unconstrained or "inframarginal," because they contribute some of their own income to their food budgets, and hence can use food stamp benefits to free up cash resources to spend as they wish. It would be ineffective in some cases to prohibit soda and candy. But, by this argument, aren't the current restrictions that food stamps must be used only for food already equally ineffective for such consumers?
4. No evidence exists which indicates that food stamp benefits directly contribute to poor food choices and negative dietary outcomes, such as obesity.
FNS writes, "While poverty is associated with obesity in some population groups and Food Stamp Program participation is closely linked with poverty, the independent effect of program participation on obesity is unknown." What priority does FNS give research with strong methodology on this question?
There are additional good reasons for not restricting food stamps to just healthy food. Advocates for low-income Americans are highly worried that additional restrictions would discourage participation by eligible families. Discussion is welcome!