Save food stamp program by reforming it

Commentary: There is not enough talk about where SNAP dollars actually go and whether the program is working

The USDA says the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is intended to increase the “food purchasing power of low-income households, enabling them to obtain a more nutritious diet.” But almost any food in the supermarket passes muster.
Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

With each attempt to pass the 2012 farm bill (yes, it has been that long), congressional Republicans keep ratcheting up their cruelty to poor Americans. While last year’s bill would have cut $16 billion to food stamps, the House of Representatives has now proposed an astonishing $39 billion reduction in benefits over 10 years. While many media pundits are outraged, and rightly so, missing from the national conversation are important questions about the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the federal food assistance plan formerly known as food stamps.

Much of the controversy stems from the fact that participation in SNAP has increased significantly in recent years — from about 26 million Americans in 2007 to nearly 47 million in 2012. As a result, SNAP expenditures are rising: from $35 billion to $80 billion in the same period. Beyond a doubt, SNAP provides a much needed safety net to millions of Americans who are still suffering from the economic downturn. The program is funded (PDF) through October by the 2009 Recovery Act and also has $2 billion in contingency funding approved by Congress through the end of September 2014 — so it is likely to be unaffected by the government shutdown (unlike the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, or WIC, which could run out of money in a week or so). But a lax approach to purchases allowed using food stamps, and a lack of transparency about where SNAP money is going, are threatening the program’s true efficacy.

The N in SNAP: Nutrition

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the purpose of SNAP is to both alleviate hunger and improve nutrition by “increasing the food purchasing power of low-income households, enabling them to obtain a more nutritious diet by preparing food at home.” However, this rhetoric is not matched by the current lenient policy on allowable purchases: Pretty much any food you can find in the supermarket (except for hot items) passes muster under SNAP.

But this was not always the case. Back in 1939, the goal behind food stamps was to provide a market for agricultural surplus, along with helping hungry Americans. Fresh produce was the original thrust. But over the years, as the food industry manufactured and promoted more processed food, the program has shifted to reflect what average Americans are consuming, very little of which can be considered fresh.

As the nation’s diet-related health problems have grown to epidemic proportions, many policymakers and experts are questioning the wisdom of this approach, arguing that the government should not be subsidizing the very foods that are making so many Americans sick. In June, for example, the mayors of 18 cities wrote a letter urging Congress to restrict the use of food stamps for sugary drinks, citing the rising costs of health care and the nation’s “mounting crisis of diet-related disease.”

In 1964, Congress actually debated whether soda should be allowed under food stamps. Almost 50 years later, we are still debating this issue.

While some object to proscribing the types of foods that can be purchased under SNAP as being paternalistic, such regulations are standard for other federal programs, such as school meals and WIC. In fact, the “WIC food packages” are very limited in what they allow to be purchased, focusing mainly on nutritious foods. Why is it acceptable to tell people what to purchase under WIC, but not under SNAP?

The USDA claims that SNAP “puts healthy food on the table” for millions of Americans each month. But how do we know that? As I explained in a report last year, we know surprisingly little about how our tax dollars are spent. We do not know how much money SNAP participants spend on Coke, for example, as opposed to milk; or Lucky Charms, as opposed to oatmeal. Despite the importance of such information in evaluating how well the program is meeting its stated nutrition goals, the federal government does not collect it.

Appeasing the junk food lobby

The junk food industry, along with big-box retailers such as Walmart, are huge beneficiaries of SNAP and have successfully lobbied against any attempt to place nutritional guidelines on what can be purchased. For example, the soda industry was outraged by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2010 waiver request to the USDA that would have barred sugary soft-drink purchases with SNAP dollars. Soft-drink giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with powerful industry trade groups such as the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, lobbied the USDA to keep soft drinks on the table while the agency was considering New York City’s proposal.

The New York proposal was extremely controversial at the time, but lost in the melee was this interesting historical tidbit: In 1964, Congress actually debated whether soda should be allowed under food stamps. An impassioned Sen. Paul Douglas argued in vain that soft drinks such as Coke and Pepsi had “no nutritional value — none at all” and were “bad for kids,” and that the only benefit to permitting their purchase with food stamps was “to increase the sales of the Coca-Cola and other soft-drink companies.” And here we are, almost 50 years later, still debating this issue.

The USDA ultimately rejected Bloomberg’s waiver request, claiming it was unworkable, which was a talking point of the junk food lobby. Several states, recognizing that a food assistance program should provide actual nutrition, remain interested in experimenting with similar policies; however, to move forward on these initiatives, states still need the approval of the federal government.

Another mystery is how much money retailers such as Walmart rake in from SNAP, because, despite heightened media interest, the feds refuse to release such data. The Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota has even taken the USDA to court over the issue. (While the district court rejected the suit, the newspaper has appealed that decision.) Meanwhile, in April, the Association of Health Care Journalists called on the USDA to “release to the public vital information about the multibillion-dollar food stamps program.” With more than 230,000 approved SNAP retailers, what exactly is the government trying to hide? It could be useful, for example, to track participants’ shopping habits in neighborhoods with less access to fresh produce, perhaps to try and fix this problem. Imagine combining data on what products people buy with data on where they are shopping — would that not be helpful information to evaluate how a nutrition program is doing?

According to a Harvard School of Public Health poll, 69 percent of Americans favor removing sugary drinks from the list of approved SNAP products.

In another transparency gap, the USDA also does not collect national data on how much money banks make on SNAP. According to my research, JPMorgan Chase holds contracts in 24 states to administer SNAP benefits through electronic benefits transfer cards, and states bear much of the burden of these costs. For example, in Florida, JPMorgan Chase enjoys a five-year contract worth about $83 million, or $16.7 million a year. And the more people sign up for benefits, the more money the banks make. (The Daily Beast referred to these arrangements as Chase’s “food stamp empire.”) Are lucrative contracts with private banks the most cost-effective way to administer a critical food assistance program at a time of severe budget cuts? Could we feed more hungry Americans with some of the profits these corporations are making? Instead of cutting benefits to participants struggling to make ends meet, maybe Congress should cut the bank fees? We cannot know the answers to these questions if no one is doing any accounting. As Raj Patel, author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” said about the situation, “We know more about who makes our bombs than who feeds our kids.”

Conflicts of interest

Unfortunately, it is not only industry that prefers the status quo. Several national anti-hunger groups such as Feeding America and the Congressional Hunger Center have teamed up with the food industry to fight against nutritional improvements to SNAP. For example, when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., proposed a bill to allow states flexibility to experiment with SNAP to “encourage healthier eating habits,” it was opposed by both the food industry and the anti-hunger group the Food Research and Action Center.  

It is hard to ignore the fact that many of these advocacy groups receive significant donations from the same corporations that oppose changing SNAP. For example, Walmart donates about $2 billion worth of food and money to anti-hunger groups and food banks each year. Andy Fisher, a food-systems expert who is writing a book called “Hunger Inc.,” says such relationships cause a conflict of interest. How can a group like Feeding America receive large donations from Walmart and then turn around and take a public policy position that might anger that company? At the very least, these connections create the appearance of a conflict.

They can also generate perverse outcomes. Here is how Fisher describes the alleged generosity of Walmart, where the average worker makes less than $9 an hour (forcing many of the company's employees to rely on food stamps): “The public is subsidizing Walmart billions of dollars annually to keep its employees productive, healthy and free of hunger through government food and health care programs, yet the company crows about the millions of dollars it distributes to anti-hunger causes.” Not to mention, many workers are likely turning right around and spending their SNAP benefits at Walmart. Meanwhile, the same congressional Republicans who are proposing to slash food stamps are unlikely to advocate anything to make up the difference, such as raising the minimum wage or finding other solutions to the causes of poverty.

Tapping into public opinion

While Congress, with the support of anti-hunger groups, refuses to debate the nutritional benefits of SNAP, most Americans want to see improvements and support either sustained or increased funding to the program. For example, according to a poll from the Harvard School of Public Health, 69 percent of Americans favor removing sugary drinks from the list of approved products, as do a majority of SNAP participants (whose opinions often get left out of the conversation).

Instead of simply objecting to congressional Republicans’ proposed cuts to SNAP, supporters of the program should instead be moving the debate toward both defending and improving it. Three steps are essential:

1) Increase transparency: Release retailer data and collect information on product purchases and bank fees nationwide. If nothing else, such information may stop ridiculous claims from the right that people on SNAP are buying lobster.

2) Evaluate the N in SNAP: Conduct an honest appraisal of how well the program is meeting its stated goal of improving the nutritional quality of participants’ diets.

3) Experimentation: Allow states to conduct pilot programs to improve SNAP, to work out any obstacles and evaluate concerns, especially from participants themselves.

With passage of the 2012 farm bill still deadlocked over SNAP cuts, maintaining the status quo is clearly not working. It is time to try a different path.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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