Why Restricting Food Stamp Users From Buying Junk Food Always Fails

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Thomas Phippen Thomas Phippen is acting editor in chief at the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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Congress has considered restricting food stamp recipients from using taxpayer money to purchase unhealthy foods, but each time legislation is introduced to do just that, it fails.

Some proponents of junk food bans hope restrictions have better prospects under President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, and the House Committee on Agriculture recently held a hearing to discuss whether such a ban belongs in the next Farm Bill.

Success is an unlikely prospect, if the recent past is any indicator. The lack of consensus on the causes of obesity, the arguments for freedom of choice, and the powerful lobbying presence of food and retailer groups are all possible obstacles to the success of such efforts.

At first glance, food stamp restrictions based on health and nutrition may seem an issue that could attract bipartisan support. Democrats interested in finding ways to encourage lower caloric intake and Republicans wondering why taxpayers need to foot the bill for sweets might seem likely proponents of restrictions.

Leading up to the 2014 Farm Bill — the massive authorization package funding the Department of Agriculture — Congress debated banning certain unhealthy food purchases within food stamps., Representatives who may have been open to the idea eventually decided the support was not there.

The Agriculture Committee hearing Thursday showed how little support for measures to ban junk food within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Most Republican and Democratic members of the committee appeared to agree that while encouraging nutrition is important, restricting the types of food SNAP recipients purchase isn’t a viable option.

The committee’s hearing follows a December report from the Department of Agriculture, which manages the food stamps program, which showed that 20 cents of every SNAP dollar was “spent on sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar,” Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, chairman of the committee, said in his opening statement.

Families on food stamps make similar purchases to those not on welfare, but do spend slightly more on soda and sweetened beverages than non-food stamps families.

The main argument against a junk food restriction is arguably consumer choice, according to Georgia Democrat Rep. David Scott. “Food surveillance violates the basic principles of this great country.” The idea of cashiers at grocery stores telling shoppers they couldn’t buy some food item was irksome to him.

But when spending the taxpayer’s money, do food stamps recipients have a right to consumer choice? The goal of food stamps, and other nutrition programs, is to allow struggling, low-income people access to quality food.

Republican California Rep. Doug LaMalfa gave a full-throated endorsement of restricting food stamp purchases in a Facebook post after the hearing.

“An individual’s food choices with their own money are no one’s business but their own, however I do not believe taxpayer dollars should be used to buy sodas and other sugary items that provide minimal nutritional value,” LaMalfa said. “Those that rely on SNAP should instead be directed towards healthier alternatives.”

The emphasis on healthful nutrition, not just empty calories in light of rising obesity, led the government to implement numerous projects to encourage food stamps recipients to purchase healthy foods over the past few years, like helping farmers markets accept food stamps and requiring stores to stock more healthy food. (RELATED: New Rule: Stores Accepting Food Stamps Have To Sell A Lot More Healthy Food)

Most members of the panel, including Democrats, noted that obesity has at least as much to do with lack of exercise as sugar intake. “Sugary drinks have a clear impact on people’s health, but if we eliminated them off the face of the earth I don’t know that obesity rates would be any different,” Conaway said.

A few people disagreed. “Would any of the witnesses contend to me that soda has nutritional value?” Rep. John De Faso asked the panel Thursday, calling for a study on how banning soda purchases alone would impact the program. “It’s pretty hard to justify,” Faso said. “It’s been a pet peeve of mine for a while.”

When the Florida legislature tried to pass a ban on junk food for SNAP purchases in 2012, they encountered a strong coalition of lobbyists from food companies, as well as retail chains and grocery trade associations. Small stores, especially in more remote areas, rely on sales of pre-packaged foods usually higher in fat and sugar, and would resist losing income from food stamps.

Retailer associations are quite strong, and successfully lobbied the USDA late last year to soften proposed rules on the number of healthy foods each store had to offer to accept food stamps dollars.

Maine repeatedly requests for a waiver from the Department of Agriculture to limit what foods SNAP recipients can purchase, but so far every request has been denied. Congress could allow individual states to impose their own junk food restrictions as test cases and measure the results, which could be a workable compromise.

“If you want to do a pilot program, I’m happy to co-sponsor one at the White House,” Democrat Rep Jim McGovern said, noting that he had Googled Trump’s eating habits and declared that it was “not a pretty picture.” (RELATED: Dem Congressman: Taxpayers Are Funding Trump’s Unhealthy Diet)

McGovern suggested that increasing food stamps benefits would improve healthy eating. “I think there’s good evidence that an increase in snap benefits would increase consumption of healthy foods,” Dr. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, testified in the hearing. “When people have really tight budgets, they focus on getting the lowest cost calories.”

Few members of the committee expressed support for restricting food in the food stamps program, but “this is not the last conversation we’ll have,” Conaway said at the end of the hearing.

Congress will continue debating junk food or soda bans, and other reforms to the SNAP program, leading up to the next Farm Bill, but it appears likely that the focus will continue to be on incentivizing healthy decisions rather than restricting consumer access to unhealthy foods.

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