Thursday, October 23, 2008

FNS opposes limitations on foods eligible for food stamps

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!


Faithful & True said...

I can't believe they want to add to thier list. This is crazy that they have a list at all. Like poor people don't have the right to eat certain foods, and they should be punished because some people are obese. There are more obese rich people believe me! They eat out at resteraunts anytime they please. This is discrimination of the poor. Now these rich people can decide what you can and cannot have. This is humiliating enough for someone going through hard times to have to stoop to get help as it is, and now the upper class want to tell us poor people what we can eat as well? Us poor people pay taxes too. I have been paying taxes for 47 years, and deserve help when I have lost my job due to lay offs. I don't need to be told I can't get certain foods because they are on a list because they are worried about obese people! One time, I was paying , and the cashier says, "that will be 21.00 for foods on the list that you can't buy with food stamps." She says it really loud too. I felt like walking out. It was a block of sandwich cheese, and some almonds. Then she has to look through my bags, while the line behind me are all watching. This is how they make the poor feel inferior to the rich, and this is discrimination. Next thing they will be saying is all you can buy is beans and lentils, powdered milk and eggs.

Anonymous said...

It's not that poor people don't deserve to eat certain foods, its that they shouldn't be able to buy crap with other people's hard earned money. I am a student, I work 2 jobs and I can only just afford to stay afloat. I can't tell you the last time that I bought potato chips or pop. Then I go to the grocery store and see people buying crap on foodstamps, with money that I and every other working american pay for. I work and I can't affod that stuff, are you telling me its right that my money should go for someone to sit on their butt all day and eat cheetos? You're freaking right this makes me angry.
Poor people can decide what they can and can not buy when they pay for it themselves, but when it is taxpayer money, it is NOT their money and so their should be restrictions. Food stamps are not that persons personal spending money, they have done NOTHING to earn it and so have no right to say that they deserve soad and ho hos. It is not my responsiblity, or any other working american's, to pay for your snacks.

Broke_student said...

In addition, if there is no social stigma for being on foodstamps, and you can buy whatever you want, WHAT then is the motivation for getting off of foodstamps. its free money.
Foodstamps create a society where it is OK to leach of of others, because hey- its easy and its cheap.
If somoene is getting foodstamps they should have to save every recepit, to show that they are not buying booze, cigs and the like. If they can afford those luxuries, they should not be getting foodstamps.

Anonymous said...

You do realize that many MANY families on food stamps do have at least one parent who WORKS, right? My husband works a full-time job and works his butt off to provide for our family. Not everyone who receives food stamps sits on their a** all day and does nothing. Guess what, the taxes that come out of his paycheck go the same place that yours does.

Anonymous said...

The pupose of the progarm is to provide nutritious foods for families. I am a cashier and i see many people purchases soda, chips and candy with Electonic food card provided by government. I myself am a recipient of food stamps and it drives me insane!

Anonymous said...

Somebody receiving food-stamps for a short period of time does not prove they have not earned it. Some people have actually lost their jobs and have been paying taxes most of their lives and are using it because they hit crisis. Many are not taking nearly as much as they put in and DO deserve it. They put into the system for years and turned to it when they need help. Longer than some kid boasting about multiple jobs being with backup of parents. To all those "broke students" who were fortunate to be able to land 2 (part time) jobs and financial aide and student loans (and all the other help you get) and didn't have the burden of being down and having to keep looking -- don't think it can't happen to you. No matter how hard you look.