Many Americans think that people who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should only get to use food stamps to buy specific items. There are already a few rules, like bans on using food stamps to buy alcohol or cigarettes. But it may not be as good an idea as you think to have extensive restrictions on what people can and can’t buy with food stamps.
Read on to find out which foods people think you shouldn’t be allowed to buy with food stamps — and discover why the reasoning behind most of those arguments is pretty flawed.
1. Potato chips
Why people object to it: Many Americans think that you shouldn’t be able to use food stamps to buy junk foods, like chips and other packaged snacks. But as The New York Times reports, a USDA study on what people buy with or without food stamps revealed that “milk, cheese, potato chips, beef, cold cereal, and baked bread were among the top purchases for all households.” That means households that receive SNAP benefits and those that don’t both regularly bought potato chips.
Why their logic is flawed: As The Huffington Post explains, federal data from that USDA report shows that there are no major differences in spending patterns between households that receive SNAP benefits and households that don’t. In other words, everybody buys junk food, whether that’s chips, candy, or other processed snacks. A statement from the USDA read, “we all make many healthy choices, and we all continue to fall short of the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
Next: People also think you shouldn’t get to buy this item with food stamps.
Why people object to it: Just like potato chips, candy goes on the list of junk foods that a lot of Americans buy — but that we all realize isn’t a particularly healthy thing to have in your shopping cart or kitchen. Most people, whether they receive SNAP benefits or not, probably buy candy occasionally. Yet as Fast Company reports, people in favor of keeping food stamp recipients from purchasing candy with their benefits tend to argue, “Should government subsidies really be paying for your Snickers habit?”
Why their logic is flawed: Fast Company concedes that prohibiting people from buying candy with their food stamps is “probably over the top.” And if legislators did manage to sign such a ban into law, manufacturers of candy and other sugary treats would likely respond quickly. As Fast Company theorizes, “a ban on candy might just lead manufacturers to develop similar products (like a chocolate-covered, peanut-filled granola bar) at the same price, for the same market.”
Next: Many Americans think SNAP participants shouldn’t buy this item with their benefits.
3. Ice cream
Why people object to it: It doesn’t take a nutritionist to realize that ice cream probably shouldn’t form a major part of your diet, no matter your income level. As The New York Times reported on the results of the USDA study, “both SNAP and non-SNAP households bought ample amounts of sweetened drinks, candy, ice cream and potato chips.” Critics also point to lobbying by the sugar industry and trade groups such as the Snack Food Association as a factor in the defeat of bills that would place restrictions on what people can buy using food stamps.
Why their logic is flawed: As The Washington Post points out, SNAP participants don’t exclusively use food stamps whenever they head to the grocery store. They also use additional cash to purchase food, but that doesn’t show up in the government data on what people purchase with food stamps. People might use SNAP benefits to buy nonperishable items — including soda and processed snacks — at the start of the month, and then use cash to buy milk, vegetables, and fruit the rest of the month. The data doesn’t reveal whether SNAP participants buy more or less junk food than other shoppers.
Next: People also want to ban this category of foods.
4. Processed desserts
Why people object to it: Whether a Little Debbie pastry or a Hostess cupcake, many Americans like to indulge in the occasional prepared dessert. But these treats fall into the category of “junk food.” They also number among the ranks of “sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar,” a category that accounts for 20 cents of every dollar spent at the grocery store by SNAP households, the Times reports. According to Civil Eats, federal data shows that prepared desserts specifically make up 7% of food stamp purchases, compared to the 2% that went toward candy.
Why their logic is flawed: One of the primary arguments against instituting rules on what people can and can’t buy with food stamps is that people are smart enough to make their own choices at the grocery store. Slate reports that that’s an argument that anti-hunger groups make. But the publication also points out that anti-hunger groups “receive a lot of donations from food companies that would not want their products stricken from a SNAP recipient’s shopping list,” including manufacturers of processed desserts and other sugary snacks.
Next: Many people think food stamps shouldn’t be able to purchase these items.
5. Bakery items
Why people object to it: SNAP participants can’t buy hot foods with their benefits. But they can purchase baked goods, which leads critics to point out that people can buy cakes, cookies, and muffins at grocery stores and even at some bakeries. Those items might be fresher than their processed counterparts, mentioned on the previous page, but they aren’t any more nutritious. And as Slate reports, many people think that “the federal government should not be subsidizing junk food.”
Why their logic is flawed: Slate also points out that banning certain foods “would make the government the arbiter of which foods are ‘good’ and which ones are ‘bad.’ With some 40,000 products in the average grocery store, the task would be herculean, not to mention costly.” Slate also poses the question: Would orange juice count as “good”? What about Sunny D or Gatorade? The same dilemma applies in the bakery section. Could SNAP recipients buy fresh wheat bread, but not white? What kind of bagels would pass muster? Could food stamps buy a birthday cake for a child?
Next: Some Americans think SNAP participants use food stamps to buy this.
Why people object to it: People have long believed that some SNAP recipients use food stamps to buy luxury foods, like lobster, using taxpayers’ money. Fast Company quips, “One fancy lobster would suck up a good portion of a monthly food stamp allowance — and if you can afford to do that, you should just use cash. Not that poor people shouldn’t get to enjoy lobster. They just shouldn’t use our tax dollars.”
Why their logic is flawed: As Wise Bread reports, legislators have long proposed restricting the purchase of high-end items, like lobster, with food stamps. “But in reality, there is no need,” the publication explains. “Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that people in the income group low enough to qualify for SNAP hardly buy any beef or seafood (only about 10 percent of the average monthly grocery bill), because it’s too expensive.”
Next: People also believe that SNAP recipients buy this food.
Why people object to it: New York Magazine reports that in 1979, Ronald Reagan first told the story of the food stamp queen. Reagan’s anecdote “turned out to be a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud.” But the myth still sticks around, and plenty of people think that SNAP recipients are buying expensive steaks and other high-end cuts of meat to feed their families.
Why their logic is flawed: While some SNAP participants may buy a steak occasionally, they’ll likely do that when the rest of us do: when the store puts it on sale. As New York Magazine points out, the “fear of ‘abuse’ of food stamps to purchase ‘luxury items’ is founded on a decades-old and highly unrealistic stigma.” Studies of what SNAP participants eat shows that people who buy their groceries with food stamps “eat less seafood than the rest of us, and about the same amount of beef.” As The Conversation puts it, “People on food stamps aren’t feasting on filet mignon.”
Next: Some people even think SNAP participants buy these with their food stamps.
8. Crab legs
Why people object to it: Crab legs, shrimp, and other luxury seafood items also appear on the list of foods that people don’t want SNAP recipients buying with their food stamps. These foods are expensive to buy, so they aren’t the most efficient use of your grocery-shopping dollars, whether you get assistance from the government or not.
Why their logic is flawed: Again, it’s pretty unlikely that many SNAP participants are buying crab legs or other expensive seafood. The Conversation notes that many people receiving food stamps lack a refrigerator to store foods like crab legs, and also don’t have a kitchen with cooking equipment to prepare them. National Geographic reports that “on average, households poor enough to qualify for SNAP spend about $25 a month on beef and seafood, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Meanwhile, the country’s wealthiest households spend $45 a month on beef and seafood. Which budget do you think has more room for things like crab legs?
Next: Many people think Americans shouldn’t buy this with food stamps.
Why people object to it: As Fast Company notes, soda and other sugary drinks like iced tea, are a popular target for Americans who want to legislate what people can and can’t buy using food stamps. Bloomberg, for instance, points out the correlation between sugary drinks and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and posits that SNAP benefits should be restricted to foods to stop the program from “subsidizing soda consumption.”
Why their logic is flawed: People get to make their own choices, but the environment in which they make those choices matters. And manufacturers are doing everything in their power to keep people buying sugary drinks. As The Washington Post reports, ad campaigns for soda are now timed to coincide with the days that states distribute SNAP benefits. The Post characterizes low-income shoppers as “disproportionately bombarded by junk-food ads.” Another factor to consider? There’s no evidence that a ban would cut down on soda drinking, since SNAP recipients could just use cash, instead of food stamps, to buy their beverages of choice.
Next: People also want to see SNAP restrictions on this beverage.
Why people object to it: While we’re on the topic of sugary drinks, people also object to allowing SNAP recipients to use food stamps to buy juice. Nearly half of food stamps recipients are children. And as pediatricians will tell you, children who drink too much fruit juice risk diarrhea, cavities, malnourishment, and even obesity.
Why their logic is flawed: Many Americans, regardless of income level, give their children juice at least once in a while. And as Slate points out, people criticize the idea of restricting which foods and beverages SNAP recipients can buy with their benefits by arguing that “making low-income families in the grocery line pay separately for forbidden foods would be cumbersome and potentially stigmatizing.” Many Americans could probably use nutrition advice, but the checkout line may not be the best place to try to get them to listen.
Next: Some people think this beverage should get banned, too.
11. Bottled water
Why people object to it: People think that food stamps recipients shouldn’t use their benefits to buy bottled water because the tap water in many places in the United States is safe to drink. And generally speaking, bottled water isn’t any healthier than tap water.
Why their logic is flawed: Millions of Americans do live in areas where it’s unsafe to drink the tap water. As Science reports, “In any given year from 1982 to 2015, somewhere between 9 million and 45 million Americans got their drinking water from a source that was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.” And the people who are most at risk are those who live in rural, low-income areas. So it’s not hard to imagine that some SNAP participants might need to buy bottled water to provide safe drinking water for their families.
Next: People also don’t want SNAP to pay for these.
12. Energy drinks
Why people object to it: Many Americans express surprise when they learn that SNAP participants can use food stamps to purchase energy drinks, such as Red Bull. NBC notes that drinking 32 ounces of an energy drink can bring on potentially harmful changes in blood pressure and heart function, worse than those seen with caffeine alone. In fact, energy drinks contain unhealthy amounts of sugar and at least as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. So some people argue that food stamps recipients should just drink coffee instead.
Why their logic is flawed: There’s a good reason to encourage Americans — of all income levels — to buy fewer energy drinks. But it’s not because adults are buying and consuming them. In fact, advocates might want to spend less time lobbying for more SNAP rules and more time convincing people to stop giving their kids energy drinks. If energy drinks are bad for adults, they’re even worse for children and teens, and low-income teens are drinking them more frequently.
Next: Even this item has come under fire.
Why people object to it: As WiseBread reports, you can use SNAP benefits to purchase coffee — in any form — to make at home. That includes single-use pods such as K-Cups, in addition to whole beans, fresh-ground coffee, cappuccino mix, or instant coffee. Like anyone else at the grocery store, people using food stamps to buy their groceries can take their pick.
Why their logic is flawed: It’s possible that SNAP recipients are using food stamps to buy K-Cups, but it doesn’t seem likely to happen often. K-Cups are notoriously five times more expensive than brewing your coffee in a regular coffee pot, so they’re an unlikely choice for most SNAP recipients. Plus, unless you receive a Keurig machine as a gift, the coffee machines that are compatible with K-Cups are quite expensive to purchase. But if someone owns one of these coffee makers, shouldn’t they be able to buy the right kind of coffee to brew in it?
Next: People also think SNAP shouldn’t pay for this.
14. Mixes for alcoholic beverages
Why people object to it: Time puts mixes for alcoholic beverages on its list of the most surprising things you can buy with food stamps. SNAP imposes a few restrictions on participants, notably one that prevents recipients from purchasing alcohol with their benefits. But as WiseBread reports, “While you cannot use SNAP for alcohol, you can buy mocktails, bloody mary mix, tonic water, or margarita mix.”
Why their logic is flawed: We agree that mixes for alcoholic beverages probably aren’t the best use of food stamps, but SNAP recipients can’t use their benefits to buy liquor, beer, or wine. Plus, the liquor for a given drink — tequila for a margarita or vodka for a bloody mary, for instance — probably costs a whole lot more than a bottled mixer. And you could use “good” purchases to make a simple cocktail, like orange juice for a mimosa, grapefruit juice for a brown derby, or lemon juice for a gin fizz.
Next: People criticize SNAP recipients for many of their choices at the grocery store.
15. Anything other than fruits or vegetables
Why people object to it: Read enough rants about what people buy with food stamps, and it starts to sound like the only thing everyone can agree that people should buy is fruits and vegetables. Bloomberg, for instance, argues that the government should expand experiments that provide SNAP recipients with rebates for purchases of fruits and vegetables and offer bonuses for shopping at farmers markets.
Why their logic is flawed: Fresh produce remains a staple of a healthy diet. But critics of SNAP recipients’ spending fail to account for a couple of factors at play. Americans who live in food deserts have a tough time even finding fresh fruit and vegetables. Additionally, people without access to a functioning kitchen — such as those who live in extended stay hotels — will have a tough time turning raw produce into meals. And many people who work long hours struggle to find time to prepare a nutritious meal, regardless of their income level.
Placing more restrictions on food stamp purchases just ignores the problem of access to healthy (and affordable) food, as the Pew Charitable Trusts notes. Instead of channeling legislative energy toward coming up with new restrictions for SNAP and policing how low-income Americans behave at the grocery store, it would probably be better for everyone if lawmakers focused on helping people get out of poverty.
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