The carrot on the stick

Should SNAP-eligible foods be limited?

By Sarah Sidlow


This week, my editor sent me a link to a 49-page study by the USDA titled “Foods Typically Purchased By Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households.”

The title and promised contents sounded riveting, and I immediately read the report from cover to cover.

Here’s the tl;dnr (too long; did not read) version.

Apparently, the number one item found in SNAP shopping carts is soda. Call it pop, call it Coke, call them soft drinks, the USDA concluded that among SNAP households, these sugary drinks comprise 5 percent of the dollars spent on food. Not surprisingly, the news caused a collective eye roll among nutrition experts. That’s because sugary drinks are well documented culprits of serious long-term health problems including heart disease and obesity. Overall, the report indicates that roughly $15 billion of SNAP benefits are spent on junk food.

For years, dozens of cities, states, and medical groups have suggested changes to the $74 billion government program to help improve nutrition among the 43 million Americans who meet the financial requirements to receive food stamps. The top suggestion: stop making junk food eligible for food stamp purchases.

The logic is pretty straightforward: most of the people who receive food stamps suffer from an obesity problem, not a hunger problem. That’s because on average, calorie-rich foods are cheaper than nutrient-rich foods. That adds up to one super-sized problem.

Some view stricter limits as a way to start to reverse expensive, long-term health problems in populations that are particularly unable to cover the associated medical costs.

Others who argue for stricter limits just want to see the SNAP program lose a few inches. They argue that the program is bloated and that while it was created to tackle hunger, today less than 1 percent of households face “very low food security.” (In case you were wondering, 17 percent of U.S. households currently receive food stamps.)

Limiting SNAP benefits to nutritious food would cut demand for the program, they argue, reducing taxpayer costs. By way of comparison, the program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides food to poor women during and after pregnancy and to their infants and children, has thorough restrictions on the types of food that can be purchased.

But food and beverage industries, and the USDA itself, have denied every request to impose restrictions, claiming that banning certain foods would be unfair to food stamp users and create too much oversight.

Some claim the solution is to incentivize healthy choices or to focus on making nutrient-rich foods as affordable as, say, a bowl of instant noodles.

Many argue that if we’re going to focus on fixing the problem, the goal should be increased nutrition education, rather than increased oversight. The ability to choose what you want from the store carries with it a sense of dignity that many argue is crucial to the wellbeing of low-income populations.

Still others, including SNAP itself, point to the facts: the recent report shows an inordinate preference toward junk food by all American consumers—not just those on food stamps. The report compared SNAP households and non-SNAP households. While those who used food stamps bought slightly more junk food and fewer vegetables, both SNAP and non-SNAP households bought ample amounts of sweetened drinks, candy, ice cream, and potato chips. SNAP households spent 9.3 percent of their grocery budgets on sweetened beverages—slightly higher than the 7.1 percent figure for households that do not receive food stamps.
Maybe, they argue, this isn’t a food-stamp problem; it’s an America problem.

Or maybe, it’s just a personal choice.

Reach Dayton City Paper debate moderator Sarah Sidlow at


Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should SNAP-eligible foods be limited?



Bloated government

Food stamps contribute to poor health

By Don Hurst


The government should limit choices available for the SNAP program. Normally I would say politicians and bureaucrats have no business mandating diets. When a person volunteers for an early grave by shoving a bunch of processed food loaded with fat and chemicals down their pie holes, it’s not my concern or the state’s concern. Unless that person spends taxpayer money—then the government is allowed a say in how that money is utilized.

The USDA reports that SNAP beneficiaries spent $1.3 billion on candy and soda in one year. You could save the NEA and PBS with that money.

The shortage of quality food in poor urban and rural markets contributes to the hefty price tag. Laws of supply and demand can solve this problem. Stores stock what sells. Right now, that’s candy, soft drinks, and chips. If food stamp customers can only purchase healthy options, then those owners will start offering fruits and vegetables…if they want to remain in business.

Beneficiaries aren’t spending $1.3 billion dollars on junk because they don’t know any better. We all know what we should be eating. Sure, we have perpetual debates about whether or not gluten will kill you, the Paleo Diet, and what’s the deal with eggs? But the broad strokes of proper nutrition haven’t changed. Eat green leafy vegetables, don’t gorge yourself on fatty meat, don’t eat raw chicken, limit the sugar.

These aren’t surprises. Our poor diets come from convenience, not ignorance. It’s easier to buy that packaged junk. Cooking is hard and takes too long. People know what they should eat. As long as the easy option is available, that’s what most people will choose.

What is the goal for SNAP? Is it to normalize the need for government assistance? Is it to prevent people from feeling different from those who buy groceries with their own money? Then, by all means, let them buy all the cookies and soda they want. If the goal is to provide for basic nutritional needs to eradicate a hunger problem in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, then we need to put a limit on what food is available.

But it might hurt their dignity if they’re told, no cookies allowed! Maybe in the short run. But over the long haul, there are worse insults to dignity.

I visited a hospital a couple of weeks ago full of people who can’t walk, can’t go to the bathroom by themselves, can’t even wash their bodies on their own. These weren’t 90-year-old geriatrics. These were 60-year-old adults who had eaten themselves into disability. How much dignity is there when you lose a foot to Type 2 diabetes, or you can’t bend over without losing your breath, or you need a stranger to hold up your stomach so you can urinate? This isn’t hyperbole. This is everyday life in our local hospitals.

A 2015 federal study revealed that 40 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are obese. Almost half. That’s a problem.

Our society unwisely normalizes obesity. Vilifying the extra pounds is not about fat shaming or aesthetics. Harvard Medical states that obesity raises the risk for 11 types of cancers, heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, and all kinds of other ways to kill you. Obesity is the second highest leading cause of death for people under 70 and costs the American health care system over $310 billion a year.

Our current SNAP model keeps people fat and unhealthy. It’s insane to allow people to spend taxpayer’s money to damage their bodies. By not prohibiting junk, our government is perpetuating a cycle of disease. Participants get sick from poor nutrition and then require expensive medical care to manage preventable conditions.

Obesity while on government assistance is also a moral issue. Even in a country like ours, resources are finite. Say I have enough money to feed 100 people. Forty of them are obese. Obviously, they are well fed and in no danger of starvation. If I cut back their rations, I could double the amount of people I’m feeding.

According to the USDA, about six million children suffer from food insecurity. My son’s school offers a program where teachers place items in kids’ backpacks so they have enough to eat over the weekend. As long as we have children going hungry, we need to examine how we administer benefit programs. Money spent on the extra bag of chips or another bottle of pop for an obese adult literally takes available food from a starving child.

That’s harsh. That will make people mad. But it’s also the truth. Beneficiaries need to be good stewards of the money given to them.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at


Food system fix

Let’s target junk food suppliers, not SNAP beneficiaries

By Lela Klein


Calls to restrict the foods that poor people can buy with their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards are not new. Some are concerned about income-based disparities in health outcomes and favor restrictions on junk food and sugary beverages. Others have publicly fretted that families receiving SNAP benefits might be using taxpayer money on luxury items like seafood (gasp!) or filet mignon. Whether they come from well-meaning health advocates or libertarian safety-net haters, these efforts are wrongheaded, ineffective, and sometimes downright insulting.

Nearly all of us could stand to improve the contents of our grocery cart. The link between nutrition and health could not be clearer, and yet most of us still end up defaulting to more highly processed, artificially flavored food than we know we should. SNAP recipients are no different, and no evidence exists that food stamp benefits directly contribute to poor food choices. Whether you’re receiving SNAP benefits or not, grocery shopping on a tight budget makes it harder to make healthy choices. The processed crap is often more affordable, and will last longer on your shelf than fresh vegetables and meat. I’m personally in favor of sugar/soda taxes to make unhealthy foods more costly, coupled with clearer labeling, to incentivize all of us to make better choices. But I don’t see a reason to single out the poor by further restricting already scarce resources.

It’s worth noting that restricting SNAP benefits to “healthy” food would be an administrative nightmare and could lead to some tense and stigmatizing interactions between cashiers and people attempting to use food stamps. No clear standards exist to define healthy or unhealthy food products. There are hundreds of thousands of food products, and food industry lobbyists are not going to sit idly by while the USDA makes decisions about which are SNAP eligible. I’m all for taking on Big Food to demand better labeling, limiting factory farming, and more transparency about (and fewer) toxic preservatives and additives. But when we have that fight, it should apply to all of us, not just food stamp recipients, because it’s going to take a national movement to fix our food system.

Rules about the supply side of the equation make more sense than targeting SNAP recipients. If our goal is healthier diets, and this isn’t just pretext to judge poor people’s choices, we should focus on food producers and stores that accept and profit from SNAP. Producers and retailers have significantly more control over the healthy or unhealthy content of the food we buy than consumers. Food producers have the most culpability for the preponderance of processed junk on supermarket shelves. And changes to the retail environment can nudge healthier choices without being punitive or stigmatizing.

In cities like Dayton, many families who rely on SNAP live in unhealthy food environments.  Most of Northwest Dayton meets the USDA definition of a food desert, an area with a low median income and low access to full-service grocery stores. Many residents of the food desert rely on corner stores, dollar stores, and gas stations for groceries. This means that SNAP recipients have a difficult time buying healthy food—even if forced by SNAP restrictions.  And SNAP allocations go faster, since many “convenience retailers” jack up prices on the minimal selection they carry. Retailers make a good deal of money from customers paying with SNAP.  What if they were forced to keep prices reasonable or to offer more healthy options in order to accept SNAP dollars?

This is what the USDA had in mind in 2016 when it created new rules to make stores offer healthier foods if they wanted to continue accepting SNAP EBT payments. Currently, retailers must stock at least three foods in each of four food groups—fruits and vegetables, dairy, breads and cereals, and meats, poultry, and fish—in order to accept SNAP. However, researchers have demonstrated that corner stores find loopholes to shirk these requirements—like meeting their fruit requirement by stocking a few lemons and limes. The new rules require stores to carry seven varieties in each group, and at least three have to include fresh/perishable items. This rule was set to go into effect in January, but implementation has been delayed pending review by the Trump administration’s USDA—an agency expected to be led by friend of Big Ag/Big Food Sonny Perdue.

While food stamps are an essential benefit for those who qualify, almost no one enjoys pulling out their EBT card at the cashier. It’s been awhile, but I relied on food stamps for a short period during college, and I can clearly remember the judgmental looks from fellow shoppers I sometimes received. Let’s turn that side-eye where it belongs: on the food industry that peddles delicious, snack-sized garbage and on an economic system that makes healthy food less available to those in need.

Lela Klein is a labor lawyer, a native Daytonian, and a mother of two who lives in the South Park Historic district. She is currently working on an initiative to create more worker-owned businesses in Dayton, to drive economic  growth from the ground up. Reach her at

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Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at

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