Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Food Stamps are Fueling the Sugar Industry

By Andjela CirkoPublished February 24, 2017

23 million American households receive SNAP benefits. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees SNAP, a large food stamp program, recently released a report that allows individuals to see what SNAP households are purchasing. The report indicates that SNAP households spend 5% of their food budget on soft drinks, and almost 10% on "sweetened beverages," such as sodas and fruit juices.

In the past, many local lobbying groups, including medical groups, have called for changes to SNAP that would allow for improved access to healthier food choices through restrictions such as bans on purchase of sugary beverages. For example, Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center, believes that SNAP should function in a way similar to the way that Medicare does; Medicare does not reimburse procedures which are harmful, so why should SNAP reimburse purchases of such unhealthy foods? But the USDA, along with large manufacturers of sugary foods and drinks (such as Pepsi Co.), have stated that restricting choices would be unfair to food stamp recipients.

How much benefit are SNAP recipients receiving, exactly? The average household receiving SNAP benefits collects about $256 monthly. With just 10% of this money, a family could buy twenty two-liter bottles of Orange Soda at a market in NYC. This illustrates a significant problem. Many argue that it only can be alleviated by restricting the purchases of sweetened beverages, as incentive programs to buy healthier fruits and vegetables have been proven to little effect on changing consumer choices.

Realistically, banning or even restricting the purchase of unhealthy food and beverages for SNAP recipients would be very risky. Take, for instance, a family of four living in the Bronx. A family of four must have income less than $2,633 to be eligible for SNAP. If they receive the average monthly benefit of $256, that leaves them with $2,889 to survive for the month. They have to pay rent, which averages $1,450 for a one bedroom apartment. This leaves them with $1,439 to pay for utilities, buy groceries, childcare, supplies for the kids, etc. This is not easy. And healthy food is not affordable. The easiest options for these families is to buy mostly cheap, processed foods. And restricting their access to purchasing foods that are affordable will leave many of them hungry. And isn’t the whole point of the program to alleviate hunger?
The better action would be for the USDA to start subsidizing the right kinds of foods. The United States Department of Agriculture heavily subsidizes large farmers of soybeans, corn, and wheat, while not providing the same assistance to farmers of fruits and vegetables. If they provided the same assistance to fruit and vegetable producers, the prices on these items in the market would not be so high, and more individuals, including SNAP benefit recipients, would be able to have a healthy diet. With the right sort of government intervention, SNAP recipients can take control of their health.