Restricting what recipients of SNAP benefits eat won't fix nutritional issues
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On Thursday, the House Committee on Agriculture held a public hearing on the pros and cons of restricting how SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, can be used. This hearing is the latest event in a cycle that has been going on for years: more handwringing over the “surprising” news that people use food stamps to buy junk food, followed by calls to stop this flagrant abuse of a government program. 

Last month, for example, Tennessee proposed (and then dropped) a bill to prohibit people from using food stamps to buy food with “no nutritional value,” and The New York Times ran a (widely debunkedarticle declaring that “a disproportionate amount of food stamp money is going towards unhealthy foods” like soda. The article, like the bills proposed in Tennessee and many other states and presumably being considered by the House Committee, is just another way poor people are routinely shamed and stigmatized.

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Trying to restrict what poor people eat ignores the heart of the problem: that many poor families are struggling and have inadequate resources and support. SNAP is an important safety net for people who are elderly, disabled, or temporarily unemployed. For some families; it is their only safety net; 22 percent of people on food stamps have no other income. Food stamps also supplement the wages of low-income workers, and the share of SNAP families that are working has been rising. Food stamps are a lifeline for all of these families, but they often do not cover the cost of the nutritious food that people want to feed their families.

Since 2011, we have closely followed and interviewed 124 low-income mothers in North Carolina. We’ve spent even more time with twelve of these families, going grocery shopping and to doctor’s appointments and hanging out with them as they make breakfast and dinner. We stood alongside them in grocery store aisles as they debated what to buy, and we observed as store clerks and fellow shoppers peered into their carts with narrowed eyes.

The poor women in our study didn’t eat so differently than other Americans. The women in our study consumed about the same amount of “empty calories” as other women. Where they fell short was for healthy but relatively expensive foods, such as seafood, fresh fruit, and vegetables. The results of national dietary analyses are similar. Although both rich and poor Americans generally have cut down on sugary drinks and are eating more whole grains than in previous years, it is with pricy foods like fresh fruits and nuts where poor people fall behind.

Like many people, the women we interviewed said they were trying to cut back on soda, chips, and desserts. For some women, though, a soda or a bowl of ice cream before bed was one of the few treats left in a life of struggle. “I like chocolate—that’s my weakness,” said Tanya as we sat at her kitchen table. “And sodas. I try really hard to stay away from them, but sometimes I slip.” In the previous year, Tanya had escaped an abusive relationship, initially moving into a shelter with her daughters and then into public housing. She was trying to model good eating habits for her girls. But soda was one of her escapes.

For others, drinking soda (or sweet tea or coffee) was a way to stave off hunger, saving more food for their families. Many moms we spoke to skipped breakfast. Some didn’t eat their first meal until the afternoon, instead making do with a Big Gulp. No one would say this is healthy, but banning soda ignores what is really driving the problem—that most people on food stamps simply don’t have enough to get by.

Another mom, Ramira, was raising three kids by herself on a very limited budget while taking classes in hotel management at the local community college. The occasional bag of chips or bowl of Lucky Charms cereal were rare treats, and she felt guilty about them. She did almost all of her monthly shopping in one trip, so she wouldn’t be tempted to run to the corner store for a bag of chips. But she still came close to running out of food at the end of the month.

With more money, Ramira would stock up on salads and vegetables. “I notice that the healthy foods cost more money, and if I want to eat healthier or want to try to change my life, it’s going to cost me a lot of cash that I don’t have,” she said. “So I just try to go with whatever is cheapest, and nine times out of ten, it’s the least healthy thing for a person to have.”

A recent study agrees with Ramira’s conclusion, showing that increasing SNAP benefits would lead to healthier food purchases.

As a country, we would be better off if we stopped shaming the poor for choices we all make and start asking hard questions about the factors that contribute to all our unhealthy eating habits. This means, for example, holding food and beverage companies accountable for how they market junk food. We should certainly be paying attention to the growing gaps in “diet quality” between the rich and the poor, but we can’t do that if we focus on blaming poor moms and ignore the bigger issues that contribute to unhealthy diets.

Sarah Bowen and Sinikka Elliott are both Associate Professors of Sociology at North Carolina State University and co-directors of Voices into Action: The Families, Food, and Health Project.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.