SNAP Proposals to Ban “Junk Food” Ignore Realities of Food Insecurity

In June, Maine Governor Paul LePage made headlines by threatening to end his state’s participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). LePage said he’d withdraw from the program unless Maine was permitted to ban SNAP recipients from using their benefits for “junk” food. According to participation data released by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), nearly 190,000 Maine residents currently receive SNAP. Governor LePage’s irresponsible threat to suspend the program would severely worsen food insecurity for these families and individuals.

Many low-income families struggle to afford healthy food, but denying them SNAP benefits would only exacerbate this problem. Healthy food is more costly than low-nutrition options, leaving low-income families struggling to afford quality meals. The average SNAP benefit for a household is just $254, an amount that many of us would find challenging to stretch over a month. Cutting off benefits would turn a significant problem into a major crisis.

In 2013, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) released a report on strengthening SNAP’s role in improving nutrition and food security. More recently, the Urban Institute addressed common misconceptions about the food choices of SNAP beneficiaries, while the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explained how increasing SNAP benefits can improve the diets of low-income households.

There are many evidence-based strategies to improve nutrition among low-income and SNAP households:

  • Increasing SNAP participation decreases the number of food-insecure households, allowing families and individuals to better afford healthy meals.
  • Increasing monthly SNAP allotments provides households the purchasing power to make healthy food choices. A recent study found that an additional $30 per month can significantly improve consumption of vegetables and other healthy foods.  
  • Promoting fruit and vegetable purchases with incentives and money-back offers increases consumption, as evidenced by local programs that allow SNAP households to get more for their SNAP dollars at grocery stores and to use their benefits at farmer’s markets.
  • Enhancing nutrition education and healthy food practices in local communities benefits SNAP recipients, low-income households, and the community at large. As FRAC highlights, a California study found that local education improved attitudes, knowledge, and behavior, resulting in increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

Proposals like Maine’s are grounded in false stereotypes that SNAP recipients prefer to purchase junk food over healthier options. However, a study completed by the USDA indicates that—while SNAP recipients are more likely to be obese than other low-income households as well as higher-income households—SNAP recipients are less likely to consume sweets, desserts, and salty snacks than higher-income individuals. Further, their diets overall are only slightly less healthy than that of all Americans, based on the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion dietary guidelines.

LePage’s proposal is only the latest attempt to restrict how SNAP benefits can be used. While the governor has proposed to eliminate “junk food” (mentioning candy and soda specifically), proposals in New York and Missouri have tried to limit access to steak, seafood, and other foods categorized as “luxury.”

If we are truly concerned about the health and wellness of SNAP recipients and low-income families, we should consider the evidence rather than stigmatizing them. We know what works. There are practical solutions that will allow SNAP recipients and low-income households to make healthy food choices for themselves and their families.