The federal food stamp program, known as SNAP, supports one in seven Americans at a cost of around $80 billion each year. With almost 70 percent of adult Americans overweight, some nutrition advocates want to prohibit SNAP recipients from using food stamps to purchase junk food such as soda and chips. Opponents say that such restrictions would unfairly target the poor and limit their food options. We discuss the issue.

Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty
Carolyn Lochhead, Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle
Michele Simon, public health lawyer, president of the consulting firm Eat, Drink, Politics, and author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back"

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Rather than denounce restricting buying junk food with SNAP how about the opponents work harder to get access to healthy food to ALL those on SNAP???

    It seems so uncaring and inhumane to me that anyone would not want to do everything possible to help the most vulnerable amongst us, avoid unhealthy choices.

  • Prediction – Big Food will blow through so much money to squash this idea it will make the GMO labelling fight look like chump change.

    The challenge is beyond enabling mere access to “healthy” food (AKA whole, unprocessed ingredients); it involves empowering people to be able to actually procure it, prepare it, and help their families learn to actually enjoy it and choose it over the chemically addictive stuff they’ve eaten for so long.

    • Curious

      Wow. Are people really this helpless and stupid?
      More likely they are simply lazy.

      • I’m going to charitable and assume you’re sincere and not trolling. Ignorance about how to prepare healthy food quickly and inexpensively actually crosses many demographics, not just the poor. But the poor often don’t have the “luxury” of time and energy to learn.

        • Curious

          Right, because sitting at home all day watching TV really cuts into one’s learning time.
          It is not brain surgery. If you are unable to cook a simple meal, you should be in an institution.

          • Amy Petty

            Therein lies the problem—YOUR assumption that people who are poor sit around watching t.v. all day. As opposed to the reality which is that we work two or more jobs all day, every day, JUST TO MAKE ENDS MEET.

      • Beth Grant DeRoos

        Many people on SNAP live in what are called food deserts, where access to whole healthy foods is not the norm. Yet given access to healthy foods like fresh fruits, vegetables via farmers markets in urban areas and SNAP clients do buy healthy foods.

        • Curious

          I think the food desert myth has been exposed.

          • Amy Petty

            Prove it. Don’t just make a claim and leave it at that. Show us the evidence, if you’re so convinced.

  • sfbayguy

    Yes, I thought that was already the case.

  • Why is the focus on what people can purchase with food stamps and not on the issue of food stamps addressing food insecurity?

    How would restrictions prevent SNAP recipients from finding other ways to purchase and consume these restricted foods?

    How does restricting food purchases with food stamps influence the buying choices of people who don’t receive food stamps?

    If the argument is that low-income populations are the most susceptible to obesity and negative health outcomes, then wouldn’t it follow that restrictions be extended to ALL at-risk populations, considering that there are populations that fall into “low-income” and “food insecure” but are ineligible for food stamps?

    How does restricting food purchases empower low-income populations who are already marginalized and disenfranchised?

    What role does privilege – class, education, race – play in how individuals perceive nutrition, health, marketing and food?

    How do these conversations empower the people who have yet to be included in them?

  • geraldfnord

    Why not ration a bit of junk? ; as Shakespeare has Lear argue:

    O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
    Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
    Allow not nature more than nature needs,
    Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s

  • gayle

    If we are concerned about government proceeds going to “big soda,” shouldn’t we also be talking about removing sodas from government buildings, military bases, and correctional facilities?

  • James Ivey

    Is there any evidence that restricting SNAP to healthier foods would help elminate food deserts, e.g., by increasing demand for healthier foods in areas where demand is currently low?

  • Phil

    Here’s what I think would be a great idea… If we’re able to send somebody a bank statement every month letting them know what they spend their money on. Why can’t we send somebody a food statement? Anybody on food stamps should receive a statement illustrating everything they spend their money on and its nutritional value. It would help people make an educated decision by showing them what they’re currently purchasing and maybe even the statement include some of the nutritional value of the food. The goal would be to have people make their own healthier decisionswithout dictating what they can and cannot eat.

    • Beth Grant DeRoos

      Thats an excellent idea Phil. Although saving my grocery receipt allows me to see what I have bought. Which makes me wonder if my receipt shows me what I have bought, wouldnt this information be available to those who oversee the program and thus show how much unhealthy foods SNAP clients are buying?

    • LOL. A statement about their bad eating habits? Really? You realized that these are irresponsible adults. I know them, I work with many of them here in SF.

      • Phil

        Yeah. Why not? Not only about bad eating habits but about good ones too. Don’t think of it as a form of judgement but a source of information. An educated consumer will make better decisions. Honestly, I would love a monthly statement to illustrate my diet for me, I try and track what I eat using an app now and it leads me to be more conscious about what I buy. I think it would lead to healthier choices if people could see an illustrated graph of healthy calorie intake for a month relative to what they purchased.

  • Jon Gold

    I admit here that I do receive Cal Fresh, but do not share that with too many around me…the amounts fluctuate and it isn’t much so I’m always careful and buy ‘good’ food. Of course, one cannot purchase wine or none-food items. Most farmer’s markets exchange tokens for the EBT dollars. Some who receive the benefit have no kitchen to prepare their meals and use the funds at fast food restaurants. Education is key. Junk food habits are hard to break. These are two different subjects…

  • Rich Longacre

    If it makes sense to prevent the purchase of liquor with food stamps, then why would the prevention of buying what amounts to slow poison be an alarming concept to anyone exept the true beneficiaries of this subsidy-that indeed of the likes of Walmart, etc…?

  • Nicole Ballard

    Food costs are the enemy here not the poor! Instead of trying to ostracize the poor through their food. Your guest Michelle should be leading the cause for fighting the exuberant rate of “healthy food”! There’s no reason to further punish people for needing food stamps. Let’s keep in mind that many people on assistance do work full time, and their tax dollars go towards the program also. I don’t think that they would want this limit!
    Please stop attacking those on snap Michelle you’re not helping by trying to limit the choices made by adults. Please switch to foods costs, which really dictates what people can buy, not their education, or nutrition training. The fact is ramen noodles are cheaper than spinach!!!

    • TrainedHistorian

      Re “I don’t think that they would want this limit” I disagree. I was on food stamps 2 and a half years, and WIC too and I would have had no objection whatsoever to limits like no soda. In fact I do not think any beverage except milk should qualify for food stamps. (Water is already free from tap. You don’t need to buy it. Any other beverage will have fructose (added or naturally occurring like juice) which is unhealthy and a waste of money that can be used on solid food), .I do not agree at all with Jessica. She should not project her ideology onto those of us who have been on food stamps. The stigma of being on food stamps or WIC–which does not permit soda or other pure junk food–certainly did not come from what was allowed to be in your shopping basket, as she says. It.came from actually pulling out the stamps and paying with them because no one else at the cash registers does that.. Nowadays food stamps users have a card to swipe like everyone else, but not WIC clients, They still use special coupons, so their “differentness” is visible to everyone in line.

      The real threat to those of us who had to use food stamps to survive is not that there will be restrictions on some kinds of junk food, but that there will be cuts to the program, and that the bar for qualification will be made even lower.

  • USER

    We shouldn’t even need to have this discussion (If all could have long term vision) Of course there should be restrictions on what one buys with food assistance. First tax payers are paying for these kind of plans and then when the beneficiaries spend it on non-nutritional food and become obese and suffer from number of diseases, it is tax payers who indirectly pay the emergency room/hospital bill once again. If the recipients can’t make themselves use the support to buy nutritional food, due to lack of knowledge, quantity of food they can buy, lack of self control – whatever be the reason, then they need to be told to do so. Because they need to learn that help comes with responsibility.

    The argument that more junk food can be bought with same amount of money – may be true – but has no substance for two reasons 1) If there is a restriction placed, all big food manufacturers and distributors will move on to next set of things that qualify under new guidelines and make them cheaper than they are today. 2) We need to stand up and say, it is NOT ok to feed a toddler potato chips, you can feed them bread for the same price, and we know it.

  • bitobonnie .

    I really don’t understand why we can’t say no soda and junk food while NOT cutting funds for the program. I think it’s a terrible idea for parents to teach their kids that chips and soda are a snack. I have my own kid eat “growing” food first and then if he wants a treat he can have a few chips, but this isn’t something that is always available. Sodas are reserved for a special treat, they are not purchased in liter bottles as a staple to drink with meals. We don’t bring it into the house, but may have one on a hot day like you buy an ice cream cone. When I was on food stamps, I was VERY aware of the nutritional value of my food because I wanted more bang for my buck. If you want non nutritive items, you’ll just have to treat it like what it is-an extra.

  • Mel

    The largest and most effective anti-poverty program is public education.
    There is no free lunch and granting people the feeling of being more normal by having the choice to buy non-food is a ridiculous concept. Food stamps are about feeding people, not having an endless, empty happy meal that’s provided by some abstract trust fund. They’re supposed to FEED.

    • Rich Longacre

      Here here! The operative concept here is “feed”… POISON is not food…could not agree more…

  • Robert Thomas

    My unscientific observation of the grocery baskets of the WIC program users in front of me at my Lucky’s checkout is that they’re not loaded up with Mars bars and Dr. Pepper. This seems a canard for anti-corporation axe-grinders. Whether people enrolled in such programs indulge in such treats too much, they rarely seem to use WIC to do it, in front of me.

    I’m often struck by the intensity and zeal displayed by do-gooders apprehending the opportunity to tell poor people how to eat.

    Would it be a good idea to offset the cost of providing kale to hungry people with a %100 tax on sugary coffee sold at Starbucks? Or on high-caloric wine?

    Won’t it confound activists when increased patronage of Farmers’ Markets by poor people is reflected in increased sales at Costco and Walmart, the source of products found there?

    • Amy Petty

      WIC CAN’T be used for those things. There are very specific guidelines as to what WIC can and can’t be used for.

  • USER

    To those saying ‘make nutritional food accessible to SNAP recipients’. It is already there, look at the caller Mike, one has to put in some efforts. He is going to Farmers market to buy things instead of Walmart. I bought about 60 dollar worth of food from Whole foods for less than ten dollars by using their coupons. So why can’t these snap recipients do the same?

    • Hakumeiun

      Location, location, location. I live in a poorer neighborhood. The ONLY grocery store nearby is a discount grocery, which carries very few organic items, few fresh vegetables, and tons of processed, unwholesome food. Being lucky enough to have a car, I can drive the ten minutes to a slightly better store and (my usual choice) the fifteen minutes to a store with a large produce section and a respectable organic selection. If I were to have to take the bus, a shopping trip would take hours, thus necessitating very large purchases. But hauling fifteen bags of food home on a bus is extremely difficult and all but impossible when one is hauling a few kids around too. The problem is further exacerbated by unstable work hours, strange shifts, and multiple jobs. We won’t even discuss the implications for disabled people.
      So the answer to your question is pretty simple: location. “These snap recipients” of which you speak don’t shop at health-conscious markets because they don’t have access to health-conscious markets and just make due with what they have.

    • Amy Petty

      This idea that Farmers’ Markets are the key to everything is a stupid myth that needs to be put to rest.

      My Farmer’s Market is only available for 3 months out of the year. I suspect that most Farmer’s Markets are like this, too: There are not that many that are available year-round, certainly. Has that even ever occurred to you?

      The second thing is that no, NOT all farmers’ markets are affordable. Again, maybe that’s your experience, but I live in the Northwest. Even things that *are* local costs at minimum twice as much as what I can get in the grocery store. Usually things cost three or four times as much. Whether you like it or not, if YOU want me eating food that isn’t junk, then the subpar produce at Wal*Mart–not-so-fresh apples, oranges, pears, carrots, potatoes, asparagus, salad greens, and all such items in their bruised and wilting glory–is what is available to me. I literally cannot afford to buy FRESH anything from better grocers where foods are far-and-away more fresh and appealing, but also a LOT more expensive.

      As for why I can’t shop at Whole Foods and spend $10 on $60 worth of groceries, it’s because the gas money and the hotel stay–required expenditures since the nearest Whole Food store is hundreds of miles away from where I live–would make it a bloody stupid thing to do.

  • William – SF

    I’m confused. Is the intent to use the recipients of SNAP to enforce better nutrition and perhaps more specifically, punish the food delivery industrial complex? Really? Waving ones finger at the unfortunately poor over food choice to beat up on corporate America seems shameful to me.

    If your beef (pun intended) is with corporations that promote junk food, then go after them!

  • Colleen Kavanagh

    I have been a nutrition advocate for 20 years and want to applaud the bravery of Michelle in taking a public stand on what I feel is the right side of the issue.

    There is a difference in restricting v. enabling that is lost here.SNAP does not prohibit anyone from buying and eating anything they want–the liberal argument here is short sighted, and I say this as a liberal. SNAP is a SUPPLEMENTAL nutrition program. It should be used to subsidize the purchase of nutritious foods–vegetables, fruit, protein–similar to WIC but not client specific. If people want to buy soda, they are free to do that with their own money.

    The tragedy in this debate is that the in their attempt not to condescend to low income people by restricting their food choices, the anti-nutrition standard advocates are subsidizing poor health in low income communities. Even if low income folks eat similar amounts of low quality calories as other people, the government has no business subsidizing those low quality calories.

  • Rich Longacre

    …This is not about poverty..this is about bad food…the real question here is why it is legal in the first place to manufacture and market addictively bad food TO ANYONE!

    • disqus_LQY06TskVR

      Because this is America, seriously.

    • Tiffany

      Agreed. We, the citizens, are enabling this food to be manufactured and distributed. The USDA has proven powerless in regulating the big food manufacturers. They are above the law and it is beyond scary!

  • Mel

    Judging about nutritional content is not HATING. Nor is judging about standards in public housing or school curricula.

  • Parisa

    The paternalism argument is often incorrectly applied to this discussion. If we are giving tax dollars to someone (anyone, the poor, the small business, the too big to fail!), then we can have some reasonable limits on what can be done with that funding. We are already being paternalistic if we are not allowing SNAP to be used on liquor, hot food or restaurants. Why can’t they spend on hot food but can on chips? Is that less somehow less paternalistic?

    • Amy Petty

      FYI, the poor people are ALSO paying tax dollars. I don’t know where you get off talking about “we” as if somehow the working poor aren’t ALSO paying the same taxes as everyone else, but you can cease and desist talking as if poor people don’t have just as much a say in how taxes are spent as do you.

  • disqus_LQY06TskVR

    Absolutely frustrating to hear stories of people not using their food stamps in an intelligent way. If we pay for it, we should be allowed to dictate how it’s spent…

    • elusis

      So, should I get to dictate how you spend the money you save on your taxes thanks to your mortgage deduction or your pre-tax contributions to your IRA or Flexible Spending Account? Because I pay for that.

  • Yvonne

    Retailers in both the fast food and grocery industry are exploiting families in poor communities by providing more “convenient” foods rather than nutritious foods. Drive into a poor community and you will see nearly every fast food restaurant in their main thoroughfares. Walk into a grocery store in a poor community and you will see that less than 1/8 of the grocery store space is dedicated to whole fresh fruits and vegetables. The remainder of the grocery store is filled with processed and packaged foods. To get to a quality grocery store I need to go outside of my neighborhood, on the bus, and into an affluent neighborhood. It’s a smaller store but more than half of the store is dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • This was a great discussion, and eye opening for me about how the sincere but ignorant earnestness of lobbyists impedes the very progress they’re attempting to achieve.

  • lombadesign

    I’m absolutely amazed at the judgment my ears just witnessed. The pharms have kept the masses clueless as to the REAL truth about nutrition. And let’s just say it IS EMPHATICALLY NOT the diet of the majority of you who judge.

  • MFB

    Mr Krasny! PLEASE stop interrupting your guests!

  • Varya

    I have tracked food stamp POS data. First the idea that the original intent of the food stamp program is in place is false. GMA and FMI have lobbied strenuously ‘on behalf’ of the poor to insure that food stamp recipients could buy unhealthy junk. The real subsidies go to retailers and food manufacturers. There are a myriad of reasons why people buy what they do but let me address the problems of the good mothers — two jobs so the kids eat easy to get foods as mom is not home, electricity that might not be on all month, and simply the kids watched TV and they want this junk food and good mom wants to do something nice for her kids. Don’t forget to throw illiteracy into the mix. What people buy is a complicated issue. That food stamps can be used to buy junk is not — just follow the money.

  • Jeff Mitchell

    So, some pious people would like to ban poor people from using Food Stamps
    to buy junk food? They use the (valid) argument that this food is not
    nutritional and is helping to cause ever-higher medical costs. Okay,
    then ban junk food altogether! Quit picking on the poor! What’s (not)
    good for the goose is (not) good for the gander! Comfortable,
    superior-acting people, standing behind someone using Food Stamps to buy
    a bag of potato chips, might be better served to look in their own
    grocery cart first. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I truly
    hope these self-satisfied, comfortable people come back as dirt poor
    people in the next life! I’ll bet they wouldn’t be so quick to judge
    then…and I’ll bet they might find that bowl of ice cream provides a
    little bit of joy to what may be a rather difficult existence. IF they
    want to re-frame the question around whether *anyone* should be able to
    buy junk food, -then- I might be persuaded to listen. Until then, I’m
    just listening to a bunch of conservatives whine about paying taxes.

  • Menelvagor

    it doesn’t limit food options because chips and soda is not food or edible. In fact it is more like poison. and seems a luxury to me. Should we also be allowed to purchase drugs and cigs with it? The solution is to open health markets in less-priviliged neighborhoods, organic food trucks, community farms, markets and gardens as well as free shuttles to farmers markets. lets actually do something about our problems instead of trying to patch the holes. The lifeboat is sinking.

  • Menelvagor

    why cant you purchase restaurant food?–thats seems racists, classist, and just stupid. If i had a restaurant i would accept them. The poor have a right to dining as well–it might alleviate a lot of family care issues. When you have to look after children and work ninety jobs you ned a convenience just anyone else. WHy dont we move markets and food truck into appropriate neighborhoods–encourage food stamp use at them. The city and state and fed gov could operate the food trucks and markets in association with CSAs and other farmers and chefs–private food businesses catering ot low-income hoods will get tax breaks and the snap tokens will be redeemable with the gov. this topic is related to GM labeling. We need to label food as GM and organic and SNAP–so all real food will be labelled as snap–not GM, not junk.

  • Menelvagor

    she contradicts herself–she says, ‘institutions responsible for taking care of other peoples children should responsible and make those decisions about nutrition.’ but…

    institutions are funded by tax payers. And SO IS SNAP–the gov is an institution–a public institution–financed by taxes–paid by the people–so WE absolutely have a right to dictate what that money should be spent on. And we alleviate epressure in hospitals–dramatically reducing obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure………..we are a society. We are a society. we are a society. sit down thatcher. we have an obligation to step in and provide good care for our neighbors. Im so sick of republicans and the mantra of ‘dont interfere with my family.’ We are paying for SANP–it is OUR program. It doesnt afford you junk food. all junk food should be taxed to high heaven.

    This is clearly a dirty sinister play by the junk food industry. Its sickening that we give them such platforms to puke on us all.

  • Menelvagor

    i drink soda and hate the fact that i do. If it was taxed and a bit too pricey. I would never buy it and i wouldnt miss it. I dont need it. No one does.

  • Menelvagor

    why cant you buy hot meals?!! Insane!

  • If these fools want to kill themselves and their kids with junk food, let them eat cake. When you pretend to be responsible in everything that you do with your life, society pretend to care.

  • geraldfnord

    Let’s impose high taxes on the bad food whose creation we massively subsidise, and remove them when we stop the subsidies.

  • USER

    In reply to comments regarding the limitations put by location one lives in, I would say, it totally depends on the mindset. I have dragged 10-12 bags of grocery while walking in snow and wishing that someone I know will stop and give me a ride. I also took bus to do my shopping. With kids and work, things are better with more planning. If I need to go certain side of the town, I make a list of all the things that need be done on that side, and save on gas, and time. I go 4-5 miles to get deals using coupons etc, why can’t snap beneficiaries do the same? It is more effort, planning and determination. That’s most of what is needed imho

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