Banning Junk Food on Food Stamps Could Be A Big Mistake

April 25th 2015

Sarah Gray

Maine is considering a measure that would ban people from using food stamps to buy junk food. The bill was put forth by State Senator Roger Katz (R) and has bipartisan support, along with endorsement from Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R).

Maine's proposed bill.

The bill would stop those who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from buying products not deemed "grocery staples" by Maine's current tax system. Currently, "grocery staples" are exempt from Maine's state sales tax, and "[t]he ban would apply to food items subject to the tax," according to the Huffington Post.

A state reference guide shows that the designation "grocery staples" does not include: "spirituous, malt or vinous liquors; soft drinks, iced tea, sodas or beverages such as are ordinarily dispensed at bars or soda fountains or in connection with bars or soda fountains; medicines, tonics, vitamins and preparations in liquid, powdered, granular, tablet, capsule, lozenge or pill form, sold as dietary supplements or adjuncts, except when sold on the prescription of a physician; water, including mineral bottled and carbonated waters and ice; dietary substitutes; candy and confections; and prepared food."

Some of the restricted items are redundant, as SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase alcohol, hot food, medicine, vitamins, non-food items, and more. The goal of the legislation is to create healthier eating habits for those using SNAP benefits by restricting the purchase of items like energy drinks, ice cream, soda, and other junk food.

Sen. Katz introduced a similar bill two years ago, which was rejected. However, this time around Katz's bill is cosponsored by Democratic lawmakers, including Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe. MPBM News, an NPR affiliate in Maine, reports that during the recent election Republican lawmakers campaigned on welfare reform and advanced in both Maine's House and Senate, adding pressure to Democratic lawmakers.

"It's something that we hear time and time again from folks -- that they really want to make sure that folks are getting nutritional food -- and this is one approach of doing that," McCabe told MPBM. He also explained that Democrats are likely to reject measures with harsh penalties.

"I think that some of these bills, depending on what the penalty aspect is, they have a chance to pass," McCabe explained. "I think for some of us, you know, the penalties that are proposed by Republicans and the administration was a little too Draconian."

This bill is just the latest in a string of legislation that has gained attention for putting restrictions on those who use welfare benefits. Earlier this month, lawmakers in Missouri introduced a bill to ban Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from being used to buy seafood and steak along with junk food. In Kansas, a bill was introduced to prevent certain vendors from accepting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) debit cards, in effect barring those who use TANF assistance from using their dollars at swimming pools, movie theaters, or cruise ships.

The problem with SNAP restrictions.

What lawmakers may not realize is that those using public assistance such as SNAP are already living on tight budgets and are barely getting by. (Just this week, a cook who works in a U.S. Senate cafeteria wrote an essay in the Guardian about working two jobs and requiring SNAP benefits to feed his family.) Banning what can be purchased with meager SNAP dollars is a punitive penalty in itself -- regardless of the goal of healthy eating.

As writer Jordan Weissmann pointed out in Slate those using public assistance don't have high budgets:

"Their big budget items are housing, transportation, and food, spending on which came out to about $6,460 per year, or about $124 per week. That's for an average family of 3.7 people—meaning roughly $33 per mouth to feed. Based on some brief online searching, king crab legs cost about $34 a pound these days (though bulk discounts might be available)."

On average a single person receives $133 in SNAP benefits per month, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This dollar amount ($33 per week) is already a limit on what can be purchased on a life staple: food.

Promoting healthy eating.

The lawmakers, however, are not wrong in pointing out that obesity and poor health greatly affect those in poverty. A poll from Gallup found that "higher obesity rates are more likely to be linked to lower incomes."

In terms of promoting healthier habits for those who use SNAP benefits, ATTN: has previously pointed out that there are better ways of promoting a healthy diet. Dr. Frank Hu from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests using SNAP to incentivize healthier food purchases.

Restrictions can create confusion and stigma and may also put an undue burden on low-income families who do not have ready access to healthy foods.

"Placing restrictions on the food stamp program for the purchase of taxable food items would greatly increase stigma and confusion at the grocery store and cause higher rates of food insecurity," Michelle Lamb, program director for the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, told MPBM.

In another vein, if politicians really wanted to address poverty and obesity, they should look into our flawed food system, where, as New York Times' Nicholas Kristof pointed out (after watching the documentary "Food, Inc."), "unhealthy calories are cheaper than nutritious ones: think of the relative prices of Twinkies and broccoli."