People on Food Stamps Buy These Items the Most at the Grocery Store

food stamps sign on a grocery store window

A grocery store advertises that it accepts food stamps. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Politicians may fret about welfare recipients loading up their carts with lobster and steak, but the more than 44 million people relying on food stamps to feed their families are far more likely to buy cheaper staples than they are to splurge on surf and turf, according to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With the average food stamp recipient receiving $125.51 per month in benefits, it’s hardly surprising most aren’t stocking their pantries with luxury food. Expensive indulgences like lobster or crab didn’t make the list of top 100 most purchased commodities.

The researchers present their data with a couple of caveats. For one, the data analyzed doesn’t include purchases from outlets like farmers markets. In addition, when people use both SNAP benefits and cash or a credit or debit card to make a purchase, it’s impossible to determine which items had been purchased using food stamps and which had been bought with the person’s own money.

Finally, the researchers note the difference in spending on various items was often very small. At first glance it looks like food stamp households spend far more money on lunch meat (#10 out of 100 ranked commodities) than on apples (#67). In reality, SNAP recipients spend about half a cent of every food dollar on apples and about 1½ cents of every dollar on lunch meat.

Let’s take a quick look at the 10 items food stamp recipients are more likely to purchase.

10. Lunch meat

lunch meat

Lunch meat | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $99.4 million (out of $6.5 billion)
  • Share of spending: 1.51%

SNAP households spend about 1½ cents of every dollar on lunch meat — roughly the same as non-SNAP households.

9. Frozen handheld foods and snacks

woman shopping in the frozen food aisle

A woman shops for frozen foods. | David McNew/Getty Images

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $101.5 million
  • Share of spending: 1.54%

Frozen handheld foods and snacks account for 1.54% of total food expenditures for food stamp users, making them the ninth most popular item. Hot Pockets and similar snacks rank 47th for non-SNAP households, who spend 0.68% of their grocery budget on these items.

8. Fresh chicken

raw chicken tenders

Raw chicken tenders | iStock.com/InaTs

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $121.4 million
  • Share of spending: 1.85%

Food stamp recipients spend slightly more on fresh chicken than non-food stamp users — 1.85% of their grocery budget vs. 1.52%.

7. Cold cereal

boxes of cereal

Boxes of cereal | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $139.2 million
  • Share of spending: 2.12%

Cold cereal is the seventh most-purchased item for both groups of households, though those on food stamps devote slightly more of their budget to boxes of Chex and Cheerios (2.12% vs. 1.85% for non-food stamp families).

6. Baked breads

loaf of sliced bread

A loaf of sliced bread | iStock.com

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $163.7 million
  • Share of spending: 2.49%

People who aren’t on food stamps spend a bit more on baked breads. At 2.78% of the typical family’s grocery spending, it’s the fourth most-purchased item. Among food stamp households, it comes in sixth.

5. Cheese

Close-up of Cheese Slices

Cheese slices | iStock.com

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $186.4 million
  • Share of spending: 2.83%

Cheese spending is roughly the same among both groups of shoppers, with people not on food stamps devoting a bit more of their budget (3.01%) to blocks of cheddar and Swiss.

4. Bagged snacks

bags of chips

Bags of chips | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $199.3 million
  • Share of spending: 3.03%

Bagged snack foods come in fourth on the list of items most often purchased by food stamp recipients. Chips and pretzels take fifth place among households not on food stamps.

3. Ground beef

ground beef

Ground beef | iStock.com

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $201 million
  • Share of spending: 3.05%

People on food stamps buy more ground beef than other shoppers. It accounts for 3.05% of their total food spending, compared to just under 2% for those not on SNAP.

2. Milk

milk for sale in the grocery store

Milk for sale | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $253.7 million
  • Share of spending: 3.85%

Spending on milk is roughly the same for both groups of grocery shoppers (3.85% vs. 4.03%). Among non-SNAP households, it claims the biggest share of grocery budgets.

1. Soda

soda bottles

Bottles of soda | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

  • Total spending by SNAP households studied: $357.7 million
  • Share of spending: 5.44%

The top item purchased by food stamp recipients is likely to raise some eyebrows among those who fret about people using benefits to buy junk food. Spending on soda and other sweetened beverages is “slightly higher for SNAP households compared to non-SNAP households (5 cents versus 4 cents per dollar),” the researchers note. Soda is the second most-purchased commodity among people who aren’t on food stamps.

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS.

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