Food Stamp Rules

Last week here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we discussed farm subsidies and their role in making junk-food ingredients cheaper. The main study cited last week compared Twinkies with apples, calculating that US Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsidies toward junk-food ingredients supported the equivalent of roughly 42 Twinkies for every apple that the USDA also subsidizes. Of course, the USDA does not directly subsidize Twinkies through farm subsidies. But it does spend money on Twinkies, and other junk food, through another federal program: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.


For years, some public officials and nutrition advocates have proposed that the USDA restrict what food items can be purchased with food stamps, eliminating certain unhealthy items such as high-fat or high-sodium junk food, candy, and sugary drinks. As an article published last year in The New York Times notes, the USDA denied a 2004 request by the state of Minnesota to forbid the use of food stamps to buy junk food. The main topic of that article was the USDA’s rejection, last year, of a similar request by New York City to start a two-year pilot program under which food stamps could not be used to buy sugary beverages. In its response to the city, the USDA claimed that evaluating whether such a restriction actually reduced obesity would be too difficult, and that it was better to focus on giving consumers incentives to buy healthier foods. In its 2004 decision, the USDA also expressed concern that the proposed restrictions would “perpetuate the myth” that food-stamp recipients make bad nutritional choices.

Many advocates of nutritional restrictions for food stamps have suggested that children, in particular, could benefit from healthier purchases. Recently, one researcher decided to explore whether children in families that receive food stamps are different, nutritionally, from children in other families. According to a Reuters article published last week, the study — published in the August issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — was based on a national survey of fifth- and eighth-grade students. Over 3,000 children, about one-fifth of whom lived in food-stamp-recipient families, were asked how many times a week they drank certain beverages, including fruit juice, milk, and sugary beverages. While differences between the two groups were so small as to be statistically insignificant, children on food stamps actually reported drinking more milk and fruit juice, and less of sugary drinks, than the other children.

This does not mean, of course, that adding restrictions to food stamps would have no beneficial effect on nutrition. (Food stamps already cannot be used to buy alcohol, tobacco, or any nonfood items.) But it does suggest that food-stamp recipients may buy unhealthy items at no higher rate than the general population. Even if this is true, however, a case can be made that food stamps should be used to buy healthy food, and that low-income families should buy any junk food with their own money. Some advocates for the poor contend that this move would be insulting to food-stamp recipients, and that the government would never place similar restrictions on Social Security or unemployment benefits.

What do you think — should food stamps have stricter nutritional requirements? Are there better ways to encourage healthy food choices among people of limited means? If you saw your income drop, do you believe that your food choices would be more or less healthy? Have you personally experienced tradeoffs between the cost of food and its nutritional value? Leave a comment below!

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  • betsyb

    i totally agree that food stamps should be used on food only… no junk… i work in a convenient store and see how the food stamp program is abused… wasting our taxpayers money on candy..snacks and sodas.. and some will purchase drinks/items for their friends..
    last halloween i was in a store and a lady purchased here trick/treat candy with her ebt card.. 60$ worth… something needs to be done..

  • Rose Edward

    I have the advantage or disadvantage of having a history of obesity. I know the difference between being obese while eating healthy foods and being obese while eating junk foods. Balance is key to controlling obesity. The fact is that I know absolutely nobody (obese or not) who eats nothing but one or the other. Having also the advantage or disadvantage of being poor, I know that cheaper foods are usually high in salt, carbohydrates and low in protein. Junk food is also high in carbohydrates and low in protein and often there are coupons for it.
    I am also a mother of a diabetic teen who eats junk food sometimes and upon occasion needs the immediate sugar in some junk food to raise him out of a hypoglycemic situation that could become serious medically if he is not within reach of glucose tabs (which are just sugar anyway). I am not receiving food stamps.
    I am not in favor of restricting food stamps to certain foods. What I am in favor of is educating the public with healthier options that may even be cheaper for them. I am in favor of newspaper coupons being for fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy rather than high sodium frozen foods and junk food. I am in favor of HUGE labels on Food price SHELF labels giving carbohydrate, fat, and sodium counts. Leave the choice with the consumer. Just make it an educated choice.
    Stretching a dollar is tough and harder still for those who qualify to use SNAP. I do not agree that buying a bit of junk food is abusing food stamp programs. It is simply a matter of a poor person choosing what necessity your cash will buy and keeping SNAP for whatever is edible. As for the ones griping about the use of government programs being abused, maybe they need a dose of poverty to see what it is really like before they judge.

  • Carol Cannon

    Leave my Food Stamps alone. As a widowed, disabled, living alone old woman, let me buy what I want. I get a lousy little amount of Soc. Sec. Disability, and a mere 59.00 in food stamps. It takes every penny of my monthly check to pay my rent, my utilities, my meds and my tithe. I get most of my food from the food pantries of local churches. I use my food stamps to get the things I like and need to see me through each month. I don’t care what Michelle Obama thinks is healthy. I have only a few short years left of my life and if I want to eat a damned Twinkie or a Diet soda…. SO WHAT. I do get healthy foods. Our local produce stand takes food stamps and I buy good, healthy, FRESH fruits and veggies. But I also like an occasional treat. I spent my whole adult life taking care of others, working my butt off to provide for my family and volunteering for every charity out there… I deserve to live my final days in peace and doing the things that make me happy. LET ME DIE WITH A SMILE ON MY FACE AND CHOCOLATE ON MY CHIN.

  • Rita Johnson

    I feel it is best to leave the food buying to the recipients. Applying for govt assistance, strip ppl of their dignity, then they have to be restricted with what they can buy? Plz, children and adults should be able to buy anything they like to eat with foodstamps, a sandwich tastes much better with chips, and cake or ice cream (with the correct t serving) after dinner is normal and can be a wonderful reward…… Don’t try to control what ppl eat, instead have things like nutritional classes, on portion size, exercise, and the illnesses ppl get for eating in an unhealthy manner. Have cooking workshops, and grocery tours. Expose families to trying new and different foods, fruits, and vegetables. GET THE PPL INVOLVED IN THEIR HEALTH, INSTEAD OF ALWAYS WANTING TO BE IN CONTROL!

  • Zigic

    bodies are made in your liver from Ac-COAs derived from fat when you lack goslcue in your bloodstream. Fat can’t pass the blood-brain barrier, so it needs to be converted to a passable form ketone bodies. In diabetes m.1, your body lacks insulin, so you can say that your body lacks the signal telling it that goslcue is abundant, so it makes ketone bodies thniking that it lacks goslcue.

  • Shelliegh

    I’m a single working mom of 4 and We are on food assistance. My family eats better then if we didn’t have help. My 6 year old daughter is diabetic so we limit the sugar in the house anyway but I like a treat once in a while! I also use my ebt food for my kids birthday cakes. Nothing fancy but it helps on those days. I also have to keep some juices or candies in the home and school for my daughter if her blood sugar gets low. Juice is not cheap either. I find it would be unfair to punish all for others misuse. Maybe food assistance recipients should be required to meet with a dietitian when the do their reviews?

  • Lisa Reynolds

    I feel that the people which in need of food stamps cannot get it.The people that don’t need it has abused it so badly they has change all the rules on how, how much, of what we should do. The world in which the people in it is not getting better the system is going to get worse.

  • pillzone69

    Fascinating that the topic of how health food is sold at a premium which for many is impossible to budget for with what meager allotment they are given is absent from this discussion.

    Also fascinating that no one seems to mention that most “health foods” require preparation, meaning those of us who lack housing, and thus kitchens, can just go screw ourselves, I guess?

    EBT is a way to keep Americans from dying from the fact that we put corporate greed before the basics of human survival. We’re not your dietary guinea pigs.