Policing the grocery carts of poor Americans won't make for a healthier country

The current proposed bills are blunt instruments that don't address systemic challenges to eating well

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published June 26, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

A sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps benefits is displayed at a Brooklyn grocery store on December 5, 2019 in New York City, United States. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)
A sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps benefits is displayed at a Brooklyn grocery store on December 5, 2019 in New York City, United States. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

In May, Senator Marco Rubio (R.- Fla) proposed an amendment to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which would essentially prevent recipients of the program from buying "soft drinks, candy, ice cream, [and] prepared desserts such as cakes, pies, cookies or similar products." 

"More than 40 percent of U.S. adults are obese, and roughly half have diabetes or prediabetes. These diseases can be debilitating. They are also extremely expensive, costing hundreds of billions of dollars in medical costs each year," Rubio wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. "That SNAP plays a role in their spread is immoral, irresponsible and reprehensible."

Just one month later, in June, freshman Rep. Josh Brecheen (R-Okla.) introduced "The Healthy SNAP ACT," which serves as companion legislation to Rubio's proposed amendment and would similarly exclude sweets and other dessert items from being bought using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Co-sponsors include Representatives Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.), Michael Cloud (R-Texas) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.). 

This isn't the first time that such modifications to the program, which already underwent a massive shift earlier this month as part of Biden's debt ceiling concessions, have been suggested. 

However, as more and more Americans are projected to face food insecurity this year— a phenomenon experts have referred to as a "looming hunger cliff" — it's increasingly important to disentangle harmful stereotypes about poor Americans and the way they shop from the realities of trying to feed one's family healthfully and affordably in America today. It's a nuanced issue, and one that won't be solved with the passage of blunt instrument bills. 

In both 2016 and 2017, the  U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture met to discuss banning certain items from being eligible for purchase under SNAP. That same year, the issue was similarly debated by state government officials in Tennessee, Maine and Arkansas. 

In 2019, as Eater reported, Texas lawmakers proposed legislation to restrict food stamp users from buying soda, energy drinks, cookies and desserts. At the time, State Representative Brisco Cain (R. Texas) said that "at-risk Texans and families who utilize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are often the most susceptible to diabetes and the serious complications associated with it." 

It's a nuanced issue, and one that won't be solved with the passage of blunt instrument bills.

He continued: "[The bill] seeks to curb the spread of diabetes and other health complications among Texans in at-risk populations by eliminating sugary drinks and snacks from the state's nutrition assistance program." 

While recent proposals to modify SNAP in this way have been primarily led by Republicans, the desire to more concretely control what recipients of the program purchase has been a bipartisan one. As Rubio argued in his op-ed, Agriculture secretaries to former Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have all warned that the country needs to better safeguard the nutritional health of its citizens. 

Mayors of progressive cities — all the way back to New York City's Michael Bloomberg in 2009 — have tried to petition the USDA, which administers SNAP, for waivers that would allow them to determine what is classified as "junk food" within their jurisdiction. 

As The Counter's H. Claire Brown reported, there are a lot of problems with allowing states to enact "piecemeal junk food bans." 

"For one, it'd mean inconsistent definitions of the term 'junk food'—the Minnesota proposal would've allowed Kit Kats, while the Arkansas proposal would've banned all meat," Brown wrote. As such, the USDA has always rejected those waiver requests, citing difficulty and inconsistency in implementing a junk food ban in just one state.

When you begin to dig into the various bills, waivers and proposals, there are two main underlying motivations for their development. The first seems to be a sincere motivation to increase the health of everyday Americans. However, a second more insidious motivation for proposing these bills (which does tend to be more popular with Republicans) is a belief that tax dollars shouldn't pay for non-nutritious food.

"Why should our taxpayer dollars be allowed to be spent on junk foods that provide no nutritional value and contribute to America's obesity epidemic?" asked Rep. Brecheen in a statement following the introduction of his proposed Healthy SNAP Act. 

Rubio argued something similar in the introduction of his bill: "By the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) own admission, unhealthy foods and beverages account for more than 20% of all SNAP spending. This is obviously bad for taxpayers, who are projected to spend $240 billion on junk food, with more than $60 billion going exclusively to soda, over the next decade. But equally important are the health consequences for those relying on a program that is meant to supplement their nutrition. After all, there is nothing 'nutritious' about a two-liter bottle of soda, a bag of chips, or an ice cream cake." 

The federal government pays 100% of SNAP benefits, while federal and state governments share the administrative costs. However, what Rubio's statement doesn't take into account are several other key details from the 2016 USDA study he cites. 

As ABC News reported , the data used for the study captured only transactions completed at a specific set of retail outlets and so is not a complete representation of the whole picture; the study also found that non-SNAP households spend 19.7% of their grocery budget on junk food, which is on par with SNAP households. 

As The Counter's Kristin Wartman Lawless pointed out when the New York Times released an article about that same study with the headline "In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda," that framing doesn't accurately reflect the full findings of the report. In fact, researchers concluded that "differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households were relatively limited, regardless of how data were categorized."

"You can imagine another piece for the Times with a completely different headline: 'In the Shopping Cart of American Households: Lots of Soda,'"  Wartman Lawless wrote. "That would begin to get at the bigger picture and an even bigger story: All Americans are heavily reliant on a poor-quality, highly processed food supply that is damaging our health." 

Despite this, damaging cultural stereotypes about individuals on SNAP — that they are lazy, stupid or purposely make poor decisions regarding their health — have been standard fare since the Reagan-era when he spun campaign trail stories about "food stamp queens" on welfare buying steaks and lobster with taxpayer dollars.

This has been refuted again and again, even during the George W. Bush's tenure as president, when the USDA denied a waiver request from Minnesota which would've allowed the state to determine what "junk food" constitutes for its residents.  "Implementation of this waiver would perpetuate the myth that participants do not make wise food purchasing decisions … [but] research has shown they are smart shoppers," the USDA wrote in a statement at the time, according to The Counter. 

It's interesting that so many conservatives decry the bogeyman of governmental overreach — until it comes to policing the diets of poor Americans. However, that is exactly the attitude that needs to be dismantled in order to more fully address the very pressing issues of both food insecurity and our country's poor diet across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. 

It's interesting that so many conservatives decry the bogeyman of governmental overreach — until it comes to policing the diets of poor Americans.

The issue is larger than just the choices a single individual makes when filling up their grocery cart, and when one starts looking into the contributing factors of America's obesity, heart disease and diabetes epidemics,  it's easy to start to feel like it's Big Industry versus struggling shoppers, because that is largely the case. The diet industrial complex has completely gutted most Americans' sense of what "healthy food" actually even is. 

"Low-fat and fat-free products flew off supermarket shelves. It took us decades to learn that when something is fat-free and full-flavored, it's probably too good to be true," writes in their assessment of obesity in America. 

They continued: "As it turns out, most food companies were just swapping hydrogenated oils and sugar in for the animal fats they removed from low-fat products. Hydrogenated oils are restructured vegetable oils that carry high levels of trans-fats, an amazingly evil type of fat that can raise your bad cholesterol, lower your good cholesterol and increase your risks of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes." 

Americans now spend more time at work than they did 50 years ago and many don't live within walking or cycling distance of their offices and schools, so activity levels are down (while portion sizes are also up). When viewers turn on the television, they are greeted with a constant, erratic barrage of conflicting messages: Buy this delicious burger and have it delivered to your home. Buy all the materials for this diet that will help you finally lose the weight. But wait, doesn't an ice-cold Coke sound great right now? 

In his op-ed, Marco Rubio asserted that banning SNAP recipients from using their benefits to buy non-nutritious food would compel corner stores and bodegas to carry more fresh produce and sugar-free drinks, however he offers no data to suggest that would actually be the case. 

These proposed revisions to SNAP also don't address some of the practical concerns of those facing food insecurity. If someone is compelled to use their food stamps to buy fresh produce, do they know how to prepare those items? Even if they do, do they know how to stretch it to feed an entire family? Do they have time when they get home from work to cook a full, filling meal

It also raises some broader ethical questions, namely: If sugary soda is so bad, why not create a blanket regulation that impacts all Americans instead of just those using food stamps? And is there actually something morally wrong with packing a sweet treat in your kid's (or your) lunch box on occasion — or is that only if you are poor? 

"As communities across our country continue to face significant hunger and nutrition challenges, it's incumbent on Congress to invest in solutions we know work."

Some legislators have proposed different ways to incentivize lower-income Americans to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than barring what they can and cannot buy. Just last week, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, and U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) introduced the "Opt for Health with SNAP (OH SNAP), Close the Fruit and Vegetable Gap Act of 2023." 

This legislation would significantly expand the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), which already incentivizes low-income recipients to consume fruits and vegetables by offering participants in some areas a dollar-for-dollar match in SNAP when they purchase fresh produce, thereby doubling their buying power. 

In a release, Booker and Blunt Rochester pointed out that even though the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 50% of a person's diet should be fruits and vegetables, less than 10% of Farm Bill agricultural subsidies go to farmers growing fruits and vegetables, and instead go to commodity crops like corn and soy, which are predominantly used in feed for animals, ethanol, or processed foods.

"As communities across our country continue to face significant hunger and nutrition challenges, it's incumbent on Congress to invest in solutions we know work. The GusNIP program is one of those solutions that helps get healthy foods to communities that need them the most," said Blunt Rochester. "The program creates a virtuous cycle for our communities, local producers, and local economy – which is why I'm so proud to partner with Senator Booker to introduce the OH SNAP Act to close the fruit and vegetable gap and make our communities healthier and stronger."  

As for Rubio's proposed amendments to SNAP, he has said that he is hopeful he may be able to make some headway because the current United States Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has returned to the role after serving under President Obama from 2009 to 2017. However, Vilsack's Agriculture Department recently told Spectrum News that it does not approve of Rubio's plan.

"Rather than focusing on restricting choice, which would increase program costs and complexity and undermines the dignity of millions of Americans by assuming that low-income Americans are unable to make decisions that are best for themselves and their families, USDA has worked to make healthy choices more accessible and within reach for all Americans," a department spokesperson said in an emailed statement to the publication. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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