Poll: Should Food Stamps Be Allowed For Junk Food Purchases?

A Florida state senator just introduced legislation that would bar food stamp usage for junk food or other unhealthy purchases. In a time of state budget cuts, “people can live without potato chips, without store-bought cookies, without their sodas,” she said. But are rules controlling exactly what foods and drinks people on food stamps can purchase really a good idea?

There are already some categories of grocery store items which food stamps can’t be used for: Alcohol, tobacco, prepared foods. But this legislation, proposed by Sen. Ronda Storms, would drastically broaden the terms. Storms’ bill would prohibit the purchase of all ”nonstaple, unhealthy foods” with funds provided by the federal food stamp program (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). According to the Los Angeles Times, legislation seeking to restrict SNAP purchases was introduced last year in Illinois, Oregon, California, Vermont and Texas (though none were successful).

I have mixed feelings about laws like these. I’ve argued before (in response to the whole ‘hipsters on food stamps‘ dustup) that as long as we’ve decided that food stamps are a worthwhile government project, we should leave it up to the individuals on food stamps to decide what kinds of groceries suit them best. The point of the food stamp program is to stop vulnerable Americans from going hungry, not to impose some sort of national dietary regime. And while it may seem more helpful (in a sort-of paternalistic way) to limit what folks on food stamps can buy to certain healthy or cost-efficient foods, what good does that do anyone if those foods aren’t things a food stamp user will actually eat?

Yes, you might say, but people on food stamps accustomed to buying junk could learn to eat healthier foods. But here, too, we run into trouble. Who gets to define ‘healthy?’ Or what is a staple and what is not? As we’ve seen with the school lunch program, a lot of industries and groups have a vested interest in what foods the government subsidizes. The task of defining what foods are healthy would be hard enough on its own, but throw lobbying groups in there? Guaranteed mess.

Of course, certainly there are categories of foods most people could agree are unhealthy, right? Things like soda, candy or potato chips. The food stamp ban could be limited to categories like these. And as much I want to stand firm in my belief that legislators should more or less stay out of food stamp recipients’ individual purchasing habits, I’d be tempted to support limited restrictions like these. Part of the goal in preventing hunger is preventing malnutrition. These days, we have people who are both obese and malnourished, due to processed foods that are cheap and taste good but have little nutrient value. Can anyone reasonably argue that soda, potato chips, or snack cakes are necessary components of anyone’s diet? Why should the government be subsidizing foods that only rot our teeth, give us diabetes and make us fat?

So I go back and forth. There are definitely dangers in letting legislators, even at a state level, set far-reaching rules on what can and can’t be purchased with food stamps, or define what foods are and aren’t healthy. But do these dangers outweigh the benefit of stopping the government (or taxpayers) from subsidizing Hostess and Frito-Lay? Or of possibly promoting healthier eating in an already very overweight nation, in which the cohort on food stamps is also the group most likely to be overweight? I can’t decide. Let’s hear what you guys think.

Sorry! This poll is now closed.


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    • M

      Aw hell no.

    • Hanna Brooks Olsen

      I think the point about “who decides what’s healthy” is an important one. WIC, which is a program for women with young kids (that was hugely helpful for my family when I was a kid), mandates that only certain food are OK–but among them are things like huge bricks of cheese (hence the term “government cheese”) and nutritionally-deficit corn flakes. It’s supposed to help those in need meet the nutrition requirements of their family, but the items outlined aren’t exactly the best.

    • Aura Mae

      Seems like a rotisserie chicken should be allowed over chips and soda.

    • fig

      It so hard to know where to draw the line.. outline all soft drinks? Where does iced tea fall? Tea has nutritional benefits, but can be more sugary than soda. Where does seltzer fall? Its carbonated, but hardly nutritionally useless. How about Vitamin Water? Gatorade?

      I think it would be tricky to do rught, but impossible to do. No way is the corn industry or the food industry going to allow kids to niot get addicted to their products.

    • Katie

      The government passed healthcare under the guise of health being an important issue to every American. They have deemed that preventative healthcare is paramount. How, then, can they condone paying for foods that directly contribute to the obesity epidemic which leads to diseases that are expensive to treat? As a citizen I am offended that first, my money goes to buy people unhealthy food and is accepted at gas stations for hot dogs and the like, and then there’s a government mandate that I have to buy health insurance and subsidize their care which could have been prevented. I support the food stamp program being like WIC.

    • Janie

      I believe the government should decide what foods are allowed, however even now, with the restrictions that are in place, the merchant s need to comply as well. The problem I see is most people receiving foodstamps do not know enough about nutrition or cooking. I think help with that is pertinant to making any laws about what they can buy. Make mandatory classes th help them make good buying decisions and to learn to cook.

    • Tina

      I think food stamps should be similar to WIC. There are only certain approved items which should be vegetables, meat, beans, pasta, rice and dairy. Food stamps should be used for essentials, I see too many people come into my store and buy the most nutritionally deficient foods with SNAP cards.

    • Juli

      People who are seeking assistance should NOT be able to buy junk food. BEGGARS CAN’T BE CHOOSERS!!!!! As a tax payer, it really irritates me when I’m shopping and I see people in the line in front of me buying a bunch of junk food and pay for it with their welfare money, or when I’m driving down the street and a local pizza place “now accepts EBT!” I’m sorry, but I am technically paying for your food and you are eating things that I can’t even afford???? How do people think that that is OK?? And the other part of it that irritates me is that I know those people are going to go home and eat their grocery cart full of junk, gain a ton of weight, get type 2 diabetes and end up on insulin and then end up in the hospital with their legs/feet, etc amputated–or at the dentist with their teeth rotting out of their mouths—-and guess who pays for all of that???? The good ol’ tax payers!!! The only people I can see protesting the government involvement of regulating the foods is the people receiving the assistance who are buying a ton of crap food. If you want to eat that way, then get off your ass, get a job and pay for it yourself! —It’s so frustrating that people have their hand out (which it’s fine—if you need help, by all means seek assistance!) and want to whine about the HELP they receive. People don’t NEED soda, chips, cookies etc in mass quantities—-they should definitely make it more like WIC where you can only buy certain items and OK yeah people get cravings, so maybe they can allow a couple of items to be junk food, but not the whole cart!

    • missmeg

      Ok, sadly my family is in a position to need food stamps for the time being… We get 400 a month for our family of 6… We were told that’s how much we get because my husband works and we can supplement our food stamps with his income, which unfortunately isn’t the case… We rely on that 400 a month to buy our food which is about 14 dollars a day to spend on 3 meals a day for everyone… Simply put, I cannot afford to buy the healthy stuff. Canned veggies, which are packed with sodium are cheaper than fresh, canned fruits packed in sugar syrup are cheaper than fresh. My husband eats bologna sandwiches for his lunch almost every day unless I can find some kind of other lunch meat reduced. We eat a lot of ramen, mac n cheese, and spaghetti because it is cheap. We don’t buy steaks or fish because it is expensive, instead we get the cheapest ground beef and chicken legs and thighs because its about 1/3rd the cost of chicken breast…

      Now, I understand why people want to limit what food stamps are used for but you don’t realize how many foods fall into the junk category. Jelly and jam used for sandwiches is high in sugar so you could consider it junk… Any hot dogs, sausages, bologna, salami, 70/30 ground beef, pork ribs, corner beef, ham… All of those meats have salts and high fat content so if you want people to eat healthy you should keep them off the list of purchaseable foods. White bread, regular pasta, mac n cheese, ramen, canned pasta… All unhealthy compared to whole wheat pastas, so they should be kept off the list as well. Any kind of boxed cake mix, brownie, muffin, pie crust mix should be kept off the list… 90% of the cereals should be taken off the list, only plain oatmeal allowed. No more kool aid or juice of any kind because it has too much sugar. Do you see where I’m going with this? If I can make my family 2 boxes of 50cent mac n cheese, 2 cans of peas, and 2 bucks worth of hot dogs for dinner then it means I can spend 4 bucks and give everyone a full belly. Is it healthy, no, but I don’t know what else to do honestly… I am already stressed to the max trying to purchase a months worth of food on what we are getting without trying to stick to a certain few foods I’m allowed to buy…

      • lisa

        @missmeg: thank you so much for sharing your story. do you know about your local food bank? maybe they can help with some fresh fruits and vegetables for you. if you don’t, you can find it by going to feedingamerica.org. i wish you and your family the best.

    • Lisa

      Yes, but only because who is to say when a family can or cannot treat themselves. What about a birthday cake? I think as a whole Americans need to be educated on healthy eating not just people receiving food stamps.

    • Ginger C

      I have witnessed this first hand. A woman in front of me was purchasing several individual candy bars and an energy drink (in a can). Her card was declined. She told the cashier it was an EBT card and not a debit card. The cashier had her reslide the card and the transaction went through. I looked at this woman, thinking wow, she looks pretty unhealthy and I thought about the future medical costs of the state.

      The govt should stop step in and demand that EBT cards be used for food and ban soda and candy at the very least. There is already precedent for this. EBT cards cannot purchase alcohol–and I’d argue red wine has more health benefits than Coke/Pepsi. By regulating EBT card usage, this would be the first step to save the US a ton of money in future health care costs–the first step to fixing childhood obesity.

    • mimi

      First of All I work just like anyone else my income is not high and I receive food stamps and wic due to the fact my job cut my hours because of the economy and this is 2012 it been happen since 2008 when we as America was crumbling due to the dumbest president ever BUSH… I pay my taxes,rent,light,water,phone,and,life insurance and still struggle if I would have to buy food my kids will be very malnutrition honesty cause I can’t really afford much,,,I DON’T and I repeat I DON’T buy all junk with my foodstamps people really need a reality CHECK how long do u think junk food will last when its 30 or 31 days in the month. Ignorance really will have you upset,,NEWSFLASH when you see fast food restaurants accepting EBT,, its for cash recipents only…. NOT people receiving foodstamps…and to recieve foodstamps is not as easy as riding a bike it is difficult example verifying job,income amount, children,and trying to find any other income which they the goverment try to find to disqualify you for and the whole process takes up two two months before you will know if you qualify or not. So YES YES YES I think people like me should have an option to buy what they want when you shop on foodstamp assistance…. And I love eating healthy I promote it within my family by buying fresh veggies,fruits,and low fat foods which is higher than the generic branded cookies,capri suns or some stupid cakes.This my opinion and experience of a foodstamp mom.. Knowledge is Power and experience is greater than non experience…Now I’m going back to work because I also have an job that qualify me to only recieve $126.00 a month. By the way I’m not spell checking my words I have a job to get back to now break over.

    • G

      People are jealous that they can’t get food stamps so they want to restrict them for others. I mean let’s be honest. So what about the woman who buys healthy food, but also buys her children birthday cakes with the card? That’s horrible too right? In their jealousy they are granting too much power to the government. This is the beginning, controlling what we can eat. Eventually we won’t be able to leave the house without government permission.

    • dave

      YES – foodstamp usage should be restricted – I am a poor white boy that pays his own way 100% and the #1 way I save money is by buying whole foods (real vegetables and fruit) making my own bread, and buying generic condiments (ketchup, mustard, etc) that is IF I can afford to. All the people that say it costs less to buy mac-n-chees, ramen, box dinners etc. I say BAHOOEY- get off yer lazy behind and COOK dinner for your family !!! Learn how to use a calculator to figure out how much something costs per ounce to compare to the next item- Eating all the box dinner processed garbage will only put you in the grave that much sooner – I come from a family of 6 and we never had Ramen, mac-n-cheese from a box, and so many other things people claim to be “cheaper” BECAUSE ITS NOT CHEAPER- and my Mother was frugal and wasnt afraid to cook ! Besides If everyone is so poor they can’t “afford” real food, how do you pay for internet and cable TV ??

    • Amber 21

      why are yall so concerend what we buy with our bseeenefits? There shouldnt be a limit on anything we choose to buy! I barely purchase junk food but when I do its used for my kids lunch box. I feel those who are against it are those who CANT get the benefits, and so what because u pay taxes, SO DO I!! Im sure if you where getting the benefits you wouldnt be talking smack… If it wasnt for ebt my kids wouldnt have a cake for their birthdays because I cant afford them.

    • Rosa

      I think it can get dangerous when we try and control what people eat. If we make food stamps more along the lines of WIC vouchers, this might be a better solution. Or better yet, only allow a certain amount of junk food per purchase, such as what happens if a child who is on food stamps is having a birthday? Are they not allowed to have potato chips, soda pop, cake, and cookies? Or because someone is not wealthy enough and qualifies for food stamps, can’t they have dessert with their meals? Some people on food stamps choose to eat organic which just means the money doesn’t get as much food for them and that is a very healthy diet. It can be very tricky to decide what others eat. I used to think this was a good idea until I myself was in a predicament of being divorced with little income and a young daughter to support. Eventually I went and got food stamps so we could eat and it is intimidating enough when people see you using the card at the counter, let alone the judgement facing you if you have ice cream in the cart. :(

    • tmemphis1

      I shall play God and ye Americans shall never eat so much as a pretzel, EVER. Foodstamp recipientss and rich alike, NO MORE caffiene or snacks, and no soda for all ye childrens. HA!!!