Food Purchase Restrictions: A Bad Idea for SNAP

Last month, at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee, experts testified that restricting SNAP benefits to certain food types would hurt low-income families as well as burden government.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves over 44 million people, providing an average benefit of $125 a month to help them buy food. SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol, prepared foods, or non-food items (such as soap or diapers); however, within those parameters, recipients are empowered to choose the foods that meet their families’ needs and preferences.

Witnesses at the hearing explained that restricting purchases would be costly for government—forcing agencies to enumerate prohibited foods—and for grocery stores, which would have to regulate purchases. Grocery stores sell hundreds of thousands of items, and “junk foods” and “sugary drinks” are challenging to define. For example, cranberry juice is typically sold with sugar added. 

According to expert testimony, there are far better ways to promote healthy food choices. Nutrition education, state incentives to purchase food at farmers markets, and training grocers to help customers make healthy decisions are all effective strategies. Additionally, research indicates that increasing SNAP benefits would give participants the financial flexibility to buy healthier foods.

Recently, The New York Times sparked interest with a front page-story that claimed SNAP participants purchase unhealthy foods, as well as sugary drinks, at higher rates than non-SNAP participants. However, The Times’ characterization—along with its photograph of a grocery cart full of soda—are very misleading. In reality, the USDA report cited by The Times shows very little difference in the shopping habits of  SNAP recipients (who spend 9 percent of their grocery funds on sugary drinks) and non-SNAP recipients (who spend 7 percent).This suggests the issue of sugary beverage consumption extends far beyond SNAP recipients. Therefore, we must reject stigmatizing policies that single out low-income families.

People of all backgrounds struggle to maintain a nutritiously adequate diet. Rather than shaming SNAP participants, we should invest nationwide in nutrition education and ensure all communities have access to healthy foods.