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NYT Flubs Story On Food Stamps And Soda – Twice

The New York Times misreported data from a government study on what people buy on food stamps, then updated the story with an additional error without issuing a correction.

The central claim of the story “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda,” published Saturday, was that the Department of Agriculture has a report showing food stamps recipients spend nearly 10 cents of every dollar on soft drinks, but that number is almost double what the report actually said.

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Citing a November USDA study comparing what groceries SNAP recipients buy to what non-food stamps families buy, the original article stated that USDA’s findings “show that the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which accounted for about 10 percent of the dollars they spent on food.” The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine captured the story as it originally appeared online Saturday.

The USDA study actually states that soda accounts for 5.4 percent of all food stamp purchases, slightly higher than non-SNAP households, which spend about 4 percent of their money on soft drinks. The Times article was right, however, that soft drinks are the number one commodity item purchased by food stamps households.

From "FOODS TYPICALLY PURCHASED BY SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP) HOUSEHOLDS" (Image: Screenshot/USDA)

From “FOODS TYPICALLY PURCHASED BY
SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP) HOUSEHOLDS” (Image: Screenshot/USDA)

The Times updated its story sometime Sunday, without issuing an note of correction, after Nathan Rosenberg, visiting professor at the University of Arkansas, pointed out the error on Twitter.


The updated article says that the USDA’s findings “show that the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which accounted for 5 percent of the dollars they spent on food. The category of ‘sweetened beverages,’ which includes fruit juices, energy drinks and sweetened teas, accounted for almost 10 percent of the dollars they spent on food.”

Later in the updated version, however, the article incorrectly states that soft drinks are not included in the “sweetened beverages” category. “SNAP households spent 9.3 percent of their grocery budgets on sweetened beverages alone, not including soft drinks,” the article said. This is incorrect, as soft drinks are indeed included in the “sweetened beverage” category in the USDA’s full report.

The author’s original mistake may have come from misreading the two-page summary of the USDA study, which says “Across all households, more money was spent on soft drinks than any other item.”

That summary also includes a table showing a breakdown of grocery purchases into 30 categories — things like “Meat, Poultry and Seafood,” “Sweetened Beverages,” and “Vegetables.” The  problem is, soft drinks are included in the sweetened beverage category, which accounts for 9.3 percent of food stamps purchases.

The full 49-page study, the 30 “summary categories” are further broken down into 238 commodity items. Of those 238 items, soft drinks are the number one item purchased by families on food stamps.

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