Should the Public Pay for Junk Food?


The country is in the midst of a public health crisis. Two-thirds of adults and a third of all kids in the US are overweight or obese. Although no single factor is responsible for the nation’s weight gain, soda seems to be at least partly to blame. A decades-long study published earlier this month found that soda consumption amplifies the risk of obesity in people genetically predisposed to gaining weight. And a multitude of other studies suggest a link between soda and obesity.

From a nutritional perspective, soda is evil. We can all agree on that, right? It’s nothing more than delicious flavored sugar water—perfect if you’re a hummingbird, but awful if you’re a modern-day human surrounded by calorie-laden foods.

So it seems counterintuitive that the government program aimed at putting healthy food in the homes of low-income individuals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has almost no limits on what foods its 47 million participants can and can’t buy. Doritos, ice cream, pop tarts, even soda are fair game. Some participants undoubtedly make wise choices. Others don’t.

A study published in this month’s issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that few low-income individuals get the recommended amounts of whole grains, fish, fruit, and veggies. But SNAP participants had worse diets than other low-income families. Program participants consumed 39% fewer whole grains and 46% more red meat. Women in SNAP consumed 61% more sugar-sweetened beverages. “Although the diets of all low-income adults need major improvement,” the authors conclude, “SNAP participants in particular had lower-quality diets than did income-eligible nonparticipants.” A study published last year found that obesity was 30% higher among SNAP participants in California than among low-income people who do not participate. Even the USDA, which oversees SNAP, admitted in a 2008 report that among young and middle-aged women “multiple studies show a link between food stamp receipt and elevated BMI [body mass index] and obesity.” [pdf] In that same report, however, the agency argues that “not enough is known about the causal mechanisms of food stamp participation and weight gain . . . to make policy recommendations.”

The research does seem scanty. For example, it would be nice to know exactly what SNAP participants are buying with their food stamps. But the USDA doesn’t appear to be tracking that. “We don’t have the information because there are huge economic interests who prefer this information to remain secret,” Michele Simon of the watchdog group Eat Drink Politics told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s convenient for USDA to say that we are not authorized to collect information on what people buy with food stamps, but the truth of it is that Wal-Mart knows exactly how much was spent on what.”

Studies that examine the impact of potential SNAP food restrictions aren’t easy to conduct either. In 2010, New York officials proposed a two-year pilot study to test whether prohibiting the use of food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened beverages would have an impact on obesity.  “We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything else being proposed elsewhere in this country — and at little or no cost to taxpayers,” said Michael Bloomberg in a statement. Yet the USDA shot down the request.

And New York isn’t alone. According to a paper published last year, “California, Nebraska, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, and Texas have either requested such permission or urged Congress to grant states more flexibility to set standards for what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits.” These requests haven’t been granted either.

Even if the link between SNAP, junk food, and weight gain were solid, the USDA argues that it would be difficult to figure out which foods and drinks to ban. “It is not a simple task to draw a bright line between foods that contribute to a healthy diet and those that do not,” the agency points out in a 2007 report [pdf]. The devil, of course, is in the details. And those details would have to be sorted out by nutrition experts. (Would plain sugar be banned? Would candy bars? How about tortilla chips?)

Creating rules may be difficult, but surely it wouldn’t be impossible. The Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which provides select foods like milk and beans to low-income women with children, already has them. Each 100 grams of breakfast cereal, for instance, must have at least 28 milligrams of iron and not more than 21.2 grams of sugar. So Cheerios are in, Lucky Charms are out. Women who participate in the WIC program can still buy Lucky the Leprechaun’s magically delicious marshmallow-studded concoction. They just have to pay for it out of their own pockets.

Incentives are another way to influence people’s buying habits, of course. The USDA has already launched a pilot program to test whether cutting the cost of fruits and vegetables by nearly a third will prompt SNAP participants to buy more of these foods. But the agency has yet to examine the impact of restricting access to junk foods. Why not test both the carrot and the stick and let the evidence speak for itself?

Image courtesy of Susan Sermoneta on Flickr

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5 thoughts on “Should the Public Pay for Junk Food?

  1. I’d rather put limits on the industry as a whole than attach strings to poverty relief. If someone’s too poor to afford food, it seems to me like an assault on their dignity to single them out for control over what they put in their bodies.

  2. Well said Jessa. At least end government subsidies (corporate welfare) for the producers of said junk food first.

  3. As said above, it must be humiliating enough to have to find a store that will take food stamps. Why punish people more for there poverty by allowing them to only choose from a government-approved menu? And, if you are too poor to go on holiday or buy yourself some nice clothes, shouldn’t you at least be allowed to treat yourself to a sugary drink?

    More than that, if you create a set of products that certain people have to buy, won’t that increased demand push up the costs of those products? Won’t that make it less likely anyone will eat healthily?

  4. Here in Ohio, we have a “SNAP Plus” program. A SNAP recipient can purchase tokens to be spent only at a Farmers’ Market (which is in the heart of one of the poorer areas of downtown Cincinnati). After attending a nutrition education class put on by our local Extension program, recipients can purchase $20 of tokens for $10 of food stamps and then use those to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and a few other things like bread made from organic and locally grown ingredients (delicious). Of course, the extension program is now undergoing cuts….

  5. I really don’t understand Jessa’s line of argument. It’s taxpayer money — money that I’m genuinely happy to pay if it ensures that some of our 20 million food insecure kids have full bellies. Why isn’t it okay to say that we will issue some standards on how taxpayer money is used? Are the WIC standards for young families an assault on dignity? Again, they can still buy soda and Lucky Charms – nobody is stopping them – just not with the taxpayer funds.

    I volunteer at a community kitchen in town. We serve meals five days a week to anyone who needs one. The meals are healthful. There are desserts, but there is never soda. Is it an assault on our clients’ dignity to set those standards for ourselves?

    I have looked at this issue a ton, and I have done a lot of work in food insecurity. I just cannot wrap my head around paying for someone’s soda, when the evidence is clear that soda is just plain terrible for individuals and the nation. We are a society that values science and evidence, no? The evidence is pretty clear on soda and a lot of this junk food – there’s actually no nutritional value there. Helping people buy it doesn’t actually help people.

    I wish I understood where Jessa and the other commenters are coming from – it’s an argument that I’ve heard before; honestly, I feel dense, because I listen, and I just don’t get it. I just can’t really wrap my head around the fact that sparing people’s feelings is more important than actually accomplishing what these programs exist to do, which is to make sure that our neediest citizens get a reliable stream of nutrition (as opposed to mere calories).

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