Expand the Use of Food Stamps?
Should restrictions on using the benefits at fast food restaurants be loosened?
A Hobson’s Choice
September 27, 2011
While food stamps generally can’t be used to purchase “prepared foods,” the U.S.D.A. currently offers states the option of allowing elderly, disabled or homeless recipients to use food stamps at restaurants. Interestingly, this provision has been in existence for more than 30 years and to date only five states have elected to offer it (in the case of two of those states, Florida and Rhode Island, it exists as small pilot programs).
What alarms me is the growing conflict between food reformers and nutritionists, on one side, and anti-hunger advocates on the other.
And if U.S.D.A. data is to be believed, it is a provision that reaches the tiniest fraction of recipients representing only 0.21 percent of participating states’ food stamps dollars. Given the minimal interest states have shown in this program, the news that Yum Brands is lobbying (exactly whom we don’t know) at the federal level to expand it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Nor should we be shocked by the dismayed reaction from nutritionists who fear the involvement in the government’s key nutrition program of the marketing whizzes behind the gut-busting Double Down sandwich.
But what alarms me most with this issue, especially in the wake of the U.S.D.A.’s refusing New York City’s request to restrict the use of food stamps for soda, is the growing conflict between food reformers and nutritionists on the one side, and anti-hunger advocates on the other. It’s a fight that serves no one’s interests and only complicates our ability to help those in need.
I admit that I find the overall situation a bit of a Hobson’s choice. I’m not crazy about the idea of expanding access to highly processed fast food to the elderly, disabled or homeless poor. In many poor neighborhoods, however, fast food is the only restaurant game in town. Access to healthy, affordable food remains a fundamental problem that will not be resolved any time soon. The fact is we lack a real plan to feed the most vulnerable, least capable Americans. That’s not to say that throwing open the doors of KFC and Taco Bell or other fast food restaurants is the way to go — but there has to be a middle ground.
Making restaurant food more available to those who are unable — through age, disability or homelessness — to feed themselves, if it reduces hunger, seems necessary, even admirable. And not because of increased “efficiency” (though it seems we are so hard-hearted these days that only arguments such as these can justify what should be moral actions) but because more people will live in less fear of going hungry.
No Funds for Fast Food
Updated September 28, 2011, 12:17 AM
Michelle Gourdine is a physician, a senior associate faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Maryland’s former deputy secretary of health. She is the author of “Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African American Wellness.”
All Americans could stand to eat better. Less than one in four adults (and fewer children) eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables per day. And busy lifestyles with little time to prepare home-cooked meals have made convenience foods — which tend to be high in processed carbohydrates, sugar, salt and fat — a popular choice in many households.
It would make no sense to use government funds to buy food that leads to disease and higher health care costs.
These poor nutrition habits contribute to an obesity epidemic that affects everyone, especially children, the poor and people of color. That’s why allowing food stamps to be used at fast food restaurants is absurd. It makes no sense to use government funds to purchase foods that contribute to disease and increased health care costs. Food stamps should pay for foods that help recipients maintain good health and fight disease.
In fact, food stamps offer the ability for recipients to access healthier food choices that many Americans who are not recipients are finding harder to afford (e.g., grapes at $3 a pound). Food stamps supplement the nutrition of poor families, but do not restrict the ability of recipients to choose foods that are not covered under the program.
In fact, according to the U.S.D.A., some 70 percent of recipients spend their own money to purchase a portion of their household food. It makes more sense to use limited government dollars to facilitate healthier food choices and support people’s efforts to engage in healthier eating habits.
Rather than subsidizing less healthy options, our time and money would be better spent educating all Americans on better nutrition choices and working to make nutritious foods just as convenient and cheap as fast foods.
Needed: Welfare Reform
Updated September 28, 2011, 12:17 AM
Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
The food stamp program was originally devised to combat malnutrition among the poor. It seems to be evolving into a program that simply spreads the wealth for its own sake. Lobbying to permit stamps to be used in fast food restaurants is the latest step in this process.
Government should limit the use of food stamps to grocery stores, and prohibit their use to buy junk food.
Food stamps are just one of more than 70 means-tested aid programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans. This year government will spend more than $900 billion on theses programs — roughly $9,000 for every low-income American. (Social Security and Medicare are not included in these figures.) And means-tested spending is actually projected to increase in future years.
As the federal government faces a future of unsustainable deficits, it is important to use scarce taxpayer funds that assist the poor with prudence and restraint. Encouraging food stamps to be spent on fries and soda simply does not pass the prudence test.
On the nutrition front, the basic fact is that most poor adults, like Americans in general, are overweight. Over time they consume too many calories, not too few. Although the popular argument that the poor are overweight because they eat too much junk food is overblown, it makes little sense to devise a public policy that actively encourages the poor to spend taxpayer funds for fast food.
The use of food stamps should be limited to grocery stores. In addition, government should prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase junk food within those stores. In the long term, the food stamp program should be reoriented to deal with the causes and not merely the symptoms of poverty. In particular, as the recession ends, able-bodied food stamp recipients who are not working should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition for receiving aid.
Food Stamps and Obesity
Updated September 28, 2011, 12:17 AM
Diane M. Gibson is an associate professor and director of the New York Census Research Data Center at Baruch College.
Forty-two percent of low-income women in the United States are obese, and the rate of obesity is even higher among women who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly the food stamp program.
More supermarkets in poor neighborhoods might not change people’s diets, if they only make more junk food available.
Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether this is the result of receiving SNAP benefits or whether there is simply a correlation between obesity and SNAP participation that arises because the low-income women who are more likely to be obese are also those most interested in getting SNAP benefits. The research suggests that SNAP participation may actually cause an increase in the likelihood of obesity for low-income women. A relationship between SNAP participation and obesity has not been found for low-income men.
It is often assumed that increasing the availability of supermarkets in low-income areas will lead to more nutritious food choices and healthier weight status for SNAP participants. Although increasing the number of supermarkets in low-income areas would be expected to lower the price that low-income families pay for food, it is not clear that more supermarkets lead to better food choices or lower the rate of obesity among low-income individuals.
While supermarkets tend to stock more and better-quality fruits and vegetables than other types of stores, supermarkets also tend to have more shelf space devoted to “junk” food than other types of stores. More research is needed to understand the impact of the neighborhood food environment on food choices.
Possible ways to encourage SNAP recipients to consume fewer calories and improve diet quality include expanding the number of farmer’s markets where food stamp benefits are accepted, providing discounted produce for participants and not allowing certain types of food to be purchased with the benefits. A study is under way in Massachusetts looking at whether giving SNAP recipients a discount on produce leads to more nutritious food choices. It would have been interesting to see whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to prevent New York City’s SNAP participants from using their benefits to buy soda and other sugary drinks would have had an impact on the total calorie consumption and overall diet quality of the recipients.