Food Stamp Rules

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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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