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TheDC Investigation: What I was able to buy with my food stamps

Photo of Matthew Boyle
Matthew Boyle
Investigative Reporter

What can you buy with food stamps? Pretty much anything sold in a grocery store, other than tobacco, booze and hot food. To find out what that really means, I took my November stipend to Whole Foods, a pricey organic food emporium that is as much a yuppie metaphor as it is a supermarket.

My first stop was the seafood counter, where I found the thickest swordfish steak I could, which at $18.99 per pound also turned out to be the most expensive item in the department. Then I headed to the coffee section, where I dropped $11.99 for a pound of fresh roasted beans.

From there, the milk aisle, where $8 bought a half gallon of pure organic goat’s milk. Nearby was the cheese section, where I found a tiny wedge of fancy-looking cheese from some European city I’ve never heard of and threw it my cart.

Last I hit the produce section, where I discovered a small but tasty-looking container of Chanterelle mushrooms. Price? $13.99, plus tax.

At the checkout line, I whipped out my shiny new Electronic Benefits Transfer card and watched the cashier ring up my order. The total (minus the cheese, which I discarded at the last moment) came to $51.10. Not bad for a gourmet meal, especially since I wasn’t paying for it.

[SEE: Food stamps are pretty easy to get]

Ironically, my food stamps didn’t cover the five-cent D.C. tax on grocery bags, so I paid that in cash. It was the only money I spent that didn’t come from the government.

When December 1 hit a few days later, I checked the balance of my card online and was surprised but pleased to see that the leftover balance from November had carried over. Flush with more government cash to blow, I went across the street from The Daily Caller office to CVS, to sample the opposite end of the food spectrum.

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Within minutes, I’d picked up $99.99 worth of Halloween-sized candy, including nine bags of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and 12 bags of Snickers. The loot filled two shopping bags, but the cashier didn’t flinch. He seemed like he’d seen it before.

Maybe he had. The government has repeatedly refused to set strict guidelines on which foods may be purchased with food stamps. In the words of a 2007 USDA report, “there are no widely accepted standards to judge the ‘healthfulness’ of individual foods.”

In practice that means that people like me – non-poor college students who are gaming the system – can legally use food stamps to buy, as the USDA puts it on its website, “soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream.” In other words, junk food.

[SEE: Universities encourage students to receive food stamps]

For creative college students planning a party, the possibilities are endless. Here are some things you can buy with food stamps without breaking the law or the bank:

  • Limes for Coronas or other Mexican beers
  • Soda water or tonic water for mixed drinks
  • Coke for Jack and Cokes
  • Drink mixers, as long they have an FDA nutrition label on them and don’t have alcohol in them
  • Appetizers from the frozen food section
  • Chips, salsa, cheese, and crackers
  • Red Bull for Jager-bombs
  • Jell-O to make Jell-O shots
  • Any other snack product
  • Gatorade for nursing the next day’s hangover
  • Egg Nog (for Egg Nog and Brandy mixed drinks during the holidays)

  • Laura of the Poor

    HAHA, how funny would that be if this jack-of-all-trades had to pay this back when he files his taxes?  I wonder if he will blog about that, or use it as an example of the big bad gov’t beating up on him.  Of course you can buy anything with foodstamps that is food.  But most people who rely on them have to be pretty frugal.  So what if a poor person buys a soda now and then?  Sometimes it is the small things like that that really make a difference to a poor person.  It is a small pleasure in an otherwise bleak existence.  

  • LillianH

    The article is a little offensive to someone who actually has and uses SNAP benefits. Certainly there are people who have benefits they should not, and abuse the benefits they have, or even mis-spend the benefits they have if they actually need them. However, I assure you, as someone who currently needs the benefits (I had them when my son was born until he was one year old, and then did not need them again until he was 11 when I got a divorce.) When $290 a month is your entire monthly allowance for groceries and you have to feed your family you aren’t buying cart-loads of candy, or expensive cheese. You are cutting coupons, waiting for sales, and struggling to make ends meet. Every dime counts and you care about feeding your family in a healthy way. I have to be very careful about how I spend my benefits or we don’t have enough food for the month. I dare you to try and ACTUALLY feed yourself and a family of 2 or more on SNAP benefits in a healthy way for the month. Write an article that is actually helpful and not offensive to people actually living this way. It isn’t easy and we aren’t all freeloaders who buy chips and soda. We feed our families as best we can.

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  • casey w

    You might want to notify your office that your case was processed in error. It looks like you are actually eligible for the minimum monthly amount, which is $16. It appears that they are giving you credit for shelter and utility expenses that you are not paying. That’s why the amount is more than you actually need. You may very well have to pay back these benefits to which you were not entitled.

  • markcar55

    The best use is to take the billions spent on this program and send the funds to food banks that hand out food in pre determined batches as to nutritional value and needs to survive.

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