Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Why Do We Expect Food Stamp Users to Make Perfect Food Choices?

Unfair scrutiny over how families use food stamps is rooted in the false idea that people are gaming the system. Instead, we need meaningful conversations about the reality of food insecurity and the real barriers that SNAP households face.

Few programs have been as successful at helping to mitigate the devastating effects of deep poverty — or been as woefully misrepresented in policy debates and the press — as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps. Some one in seven families in the U.S. experienced food insecurity in 2014, making too little money to cover the cost of keeping food on the table every month. More than 4.7 million of those families, half of whom had children, depended on food assistance to stave off hunger. The program is, without question, the cornerstone of our efforts to alleviate poverty. It has also often been the subject of bitter, unfair scrutiny over the misperception that those on the receiving end are unworthy of help, making irresponsible choices, or are somehow “gaming the system” to cover luxuries.

Take, for example, the recent New York Times article examining a USDA report on the grocery purchasing habits of families receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The USDA report is a real step forward in understanding how families are using SNAP dollars. Researchers examined food choices by 26.5 million households using 2011 point-of-sale transaction data from a leading grocery retailer. At least 3 million of those families used SNAP benefit cards to pay for some portion of their transactions. On average, the SNAP and non-SNAP families bought more than 1 billion food items each month in 127 million unique transactions.

In that article, Times readers learned that soft drinks topped the list of food items purchased by SNAP households, accounting for 5 percent of their food dollars. “Sweetened beverages” — including fruit juices, energy drinks, and sweetened teas — accounted for roughly ten percent of the average SNAP family’s food purchases. Citing the USDA report, the Times said that “a disproportionate amount of food stamp money is going toward unhealthy food,” and pointed to the effort to enact restrictions on SNAP benefits to stop families from using the allotment to buy sodas and other convenience foods.

A casual read of that piece (with its accompanying visuals of shopping carts and grocery shelves teeming with sugary sodas) could lead a reader to conclude that SNAP households are behaving irresponsibly with their federal benefits, outspending non-SNAP households on junk foods and sugary drinks, and undercutting the program’s intended purpose of providing poor families with healthy food options.

And none of those conclusions would be true.

It turns out that the majority of SNAP benefits are spent on exactly the kinds of foods that nutrition experts and health advocates would expect in any of our shopping carts. Some 40 cents of every food dollar in SNAP households went toward “basic items” like meat, fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, and bread. Cereal, dairy products, rice, beans, and prepared items accounted for another 40 cents, according to the Times. The last 20 percent covered a broad category of “junk” items that included beverages, desserts, and other snacks.

But it isn’t until almost midway through the article that the reader learns that these kinds of food choices — while perhaps less than ideal — are common in American households whether they receive SNAP benefits or not:

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. Among non-SNAP households, for example, soft drinks ranked second on the list of food purchases, behind milk.

USDA undersecretary Kevin Concannon put the report findings in perspective in his Times interview, adding “sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America. This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?”

Perhaps so. But we don’t scrutinize the grocery carts of families whose members might receive Pell grants, Social Security, EITC, or other federal program dollars. Why then, are families living in poverty held to a higher health standard than the rest of us?

It’s a double-standard that can block meaningful conversations about the choices and barriers that SNAP households face.

Among those barriers is lack of regular access to supermarkets. Put another way, families that rely on SNAP may not have the luxury of making multiple trips to a grocery store in a given month. According to a different USDA study, the average SNAP recipient lives 1.8 miles away from a grocery store and doesn’t own a car. So, it makes sense that a family might choose calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods if those foods are also cheaper and shelf stable. It doesn’t help to repeat the many health benefits that an apple holds over an apple-flavored cereal bar; SNAP recipients know that just as we all do. What could help is to understand that a bag of apples is more difficult to transport than a box of cereal bars and far more likely to spoil before the next month’s food stamps arrive.

It’s easy to miss those real, competing choices if you assume that the goal of the SNAP program is to guarantee that poor families will always make ideal food choices. But that isn’t what SNAP is designed for. Instead, SNAP is a lifesaver because it helps ensure that the 43 million people who depend on it have regular access to food at all. SNAP benefits can mean the difference in whether a mother has anything to offer her kids to eat.

Holding families living in poverty to a false set of standards — or worse, punishing them by taking away their ability to make food choices for themselves — is a strategy rooted in a different reality than many of these families face.

It’s policy fueled by cruelty. And it isn’t the answer.