Last winter a delegation of high-profile nutritionists made the rounds of D.C. lawmakers to discuss ways to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps. One of their proposals: Could SNAP explore limiting the types of food that recipients can buy with their federal benefits? A state or city might ban chips or cookies, or, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed in 2010, soda and other sugary beverages. Such a move could nudge food stamp recipients toward healthier choices, and in any case, the federal government should not be subsidizing junk food. A decent suggestion, worthy of debate, right?
Legislators’ response was uniformly supportive, recalls Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. But there was one catch: “One after another, Democrats and Republicans all said exactly the same thing. ‘You have to get the anti-hunger groups on your side. Until they are willing to support this, it’s not going to happen. Period.’ ”
But anti-hunger organizations were most certainly not on board. “It will happen over my dead body,” Ed Cooney, the executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center (CHC), said in an interview. Cooney’s response was typical of the response from other anti-hunger coalitions that I talked with, including the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Share Our Strength. Without their support, any legislative action on new SNAP nutritional guidelines is dead in the water.
Since then the section of the farm bill that funds food stamps has stalled in Congress. But the fight over how to put more nutrition into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has continued all summer. In June, Bloomberg and 17 other mayors, including Newark’s Cory Booker and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, sent a letter imploring congressional leaders to allow limits on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, which account for 58 percent of beverages purchased by households receiving SNAP benefits, according to a study conducted by researchers at Yale for the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.* On Aug. 1, 54 national and local health groups called on the USDA to allow pilot programs to explore banning soda and other unhealthy foods from SNAP purchases. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., formally requested that the USDA circumvent Congress to approve such programs. In South Carolina, Republican Gov.Nikki Haley‘s administration is crafting a waiver request to the USDA to restrict what food stamp beneficiaries can and can’t buy.
But anti-hunger groups held firm. “Our view is that people have the smarts to purchase their own food, and we’re opposed to all limitations on food choice,” Cooney told Food Safety News after the mayors’ letter was released. “There’s no study that I’m aware of that links SNAP participation to obesity.”
That public-health advocates and anti-hunger groups should be deadlocked like this is puzzling, since they seem like natural allies. Forty-seven million Americans, half of them children, receive SNAP benefits—up 67 percent from four years ago—and both groups say they want to see low-income Americans eat well. Both groups also want to protect SNAP benefits from Congress, which has proposed cutting the $78 billion annual program by anywhere from $4 billion to $20.5 billion over 10 years. The losers in this political battle are the very group that both sides say they want to help.
Supporters of restrictions have persuasive arguments on their side. While the food-stamp program was initially created to get malnourished Americans more food, today’s low-income families are as likely to be plagued by obesity and related chronic diseases as hunger. According to a study in the Journal of Health Economics, the annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. is now $190 billion. When indirect costs are included, such as income lost from decreased productivity and absenteeism, the number rises to $450 billion (pdf). “The science linking soda to obesity and diabetes is rock-solid,” says Kelly Brownell, the dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “The government should not be in the business of making people sick.”
But charities do need to be in the business of receiving donations—and anti-hunger groups happen to receive a lot of donations from food companies that would not want their products stricken from a SNAP recipient’s shopping list. For example, ConAgra Foods, makers of everything from Slim Jims to Chef Boyardee, has made a $10 million commitment to Feeding America, which also lists General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft, and PepsiCo among its donors in its annual report. The sponsors of FRAC’s fundraising gala dinner, held in June in Washington, D.C., included PepsiCo, Land O’Lakes, Yum! Brands, Nestle, the American Beverage Association, and the Snack Food Association. “It’s a bloody shame that they don’t perceive this conflict of interest as a problem,” says Andy Fisher, who led the now-defunct Community Food Security Coalition for 17 years and is now writing a book on the alliance between Big Food and anti-hunger groups.
Anti-hunger groups stress that they only accept donations with no strings attached. In an email, a FRAC spokeswoman said that the organization’s “public policy decisions and recommendations are based on scientific evidence and strategic judgments about the best outcomes for the health, economic and food security and well-being of low-income people.” CHC’s Cooney was more direct: “At the Congressional Hunger Center, we do not accept funds that have any restrictions on them. Critics have indicated that this is an unholy alliance. I have no objection to that term. Those companies have access to members of congress that we don’t have access to, people in the Republican leadership. We find this advantageous.”
There are compelling reasons not to impose new rules on what food stamps can buy, according to anti-hunger groups. Making low-income families in the grocery line pay separately for forbidden foods would be cumbersome and potentially stigmatizing, they argue. And banning certain products would make the government the arbiter of which foods are “good” and which ones are “bad.” With some 40,000 products in the average grocery store, the task would be herculean, not to mention costly. Would orange juice count as “good”? What about Sunny D or Gatorade? Multiply that quandary by the thousands, and that’s the puzzle that government regulators would face.
The complex challenges of transforming an $80 billion program are precisely why pilot programs—such as the one South Carolina is pushing for—could be potentially so important: They would test whether or not the hopes and concerns of either side would bear out in reality. According to an April 2012 poll commissioned by the Harvard School of Public Health, 69 percent of respondents—who included both the general public and SNAP recipients—supported removing SNAP benefits for sugary drinks; that number only dropped to 54 percent when counting only SNAP recipients. And of the 46 percent of SNAP participants who initially opposed removing sugary drinks, 45 percent would change their position and support the policy if the new rules included additional benefits to purchase healthful foods. Add those two groups together, and you have a big majority of food stamp recipients who are on board to edit some of the junk out of their grocery list. And in this debate, aren’t they the most important coalition of all?
*Correction, Aug. 6, 2013: This article originally stated that soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks account for 58 percent of beverages purchased with SNAP benefits. They actually account for 58 percent of beverages purchased by households receiving SNAP benefits. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.