Does the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, let low-income people have their cake and eat it, too?
Angered by the federal government’s denial of Maine’s request to bar residents from buying candy or sugar-sweetened beverages with SNAP benefits, Governor Paul LePage threatened this past week to end the state’s administration of the program, telling the federal government to “wake up and smell the energy drinks.” Such a move would be unprecedented and would leave uncertain the fate of Maine’s nearly 200,000 SNAP recipients.
LePage’s argument is predicated on the assertion that SNAP participants use their benefits on junk food—in his words, using taxpayer dollars to “finance a steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew.”
But is there any truth to this claim that SNAP recipients spend most of their benefits on junk food? And if so, could LePage’s approach—preventing SNAP recipients from buying candy and sugary drinks—be the solution? We turned to the evidence to find out.
Poor diet quality is a systemic issue and is not specific to SNAP recipients. In his letter, LePage cites Maine’s rising obesity rate. He’s right that obesity is a problem, but the problem isn’t confined to those who rely on SNAP to help feed their families. Research shows that the diets of all Americans fall far short of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the diets of SNAP participants are only slight less healthy than others’. According to this study, SNAP participants consume more sugary drinks than higher-income people but the same amount as other low-income people who do not receive SNAP. And compared with higher-income people, SNAP recipients are less likely to consume sweets and desserts, salty snacks, and added fats and oils.
Research suggests that it costs more to eat healthy, especially when considering the time to acquire and prepare fresh foods and the risk of choosing perishable foods when budgets are limited. So, the challenge may be more about increasing affordability and accessibility of fruits and vegetables.
- We don’t have comprehensive information about how SNAP participants spend their benefits, but information from Walmart, which redeems a significant portion of SNAP dollars, gives us an important clue. The top items SNAP households buy in Walmart stores are not soda and candy, but basic inexpensive foods, such as bananas, whole milk, Ramen noodles, and hot dogs. These are perhaps not the most nutritious options, but they indicate that families are frequently searching for inexpensive meals, not desserts and drinks.
- Threatening to disrupt SNAP for Maine residents undermines the very goal SNAP was established to address: food insecurity. Research tells us that the program is effective at supporting work and reducing poverty; importantly, it also reduces the likelihood of being food insecure by about 30 percent. Food insecurity can lead to worse health outcomes and can interfere with normal childhood development. There’s also evidence that food insecurity leads people to rely more heavily on cheap, calorie-dense but nutrient-poor foods—the sort of foods LePage is trying to prevent SNAP participants from eating.
- Stigmatizing the poor can have negative effects, but positive incentives can work. The evidence shows that stigmatizing people who receive social benefits tends to drive them away from programs designed to provide support. In this case, stigmatization could lead to more food insecurity in Maine, where about 15 percent of people are already insecure. A better strategy might be to incentivize the purchase of healthy foods. The federal government is experimenting with this through its Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) grant program, which offers communities grants to pilot programs that help SNAP participants buy more fruits and vegetables. Just this month, the US Department of Agriculture announced $16.8 million in new funding to devise and evaluate these programs in communities across the country.
- Evaluation is always important. The key to the FINI program is that it funds community-based pilots to evaluate what kind of programs work. LePage’s waiver application was rejected by the USDA because it offered no control group, making it impossible to measure the impact of restricting the purchase of candy or sugary drinks and understand whether restrictions actually address the barriers to a healthy diet.
It is likely that multiple strategies are needed to improve diets of all Americans, including those with limited income, but the only way we’ll know what works is to experiment on a smaller scale, evaluate, and adjust. And to remember that stigma is not a strategy.