Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday proposed legislation that would require people using federal food stamps to buy only healthy food.
The Healthy Food Choices Act, H.R. 3073, reflects a long-standing criticism that the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allows people to buy billions of dollars worth of junk food.
A 2012 study found that food stamps enable about $2 billion worth of junk food purchases each year, and that more than half of the beverages bought using SNAP benefits are sugary drinks.
Efforts to curb these purchases have been opposed by anti-hunger groups. But Roe said some states are already exploring ways to curb junk food purchases through the SNAP program, and argued that the federal government needs to take steps as well.
"Already, states like Wisconsin and South Carolina have shown interest in improving the healthfulness of choices in their SNAP programs," he said. "By giving SNAP recipients more nutritious choices, we can take a meaningful step towards ending hunger in America."
Under Roe's bill, food purchased under SNAP would have to meet the same guidelines that food purchased under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program already have to meet. The WIC guidelines are strict, and are made up of several different standards for products like breakfast cereal, milk, vegetables, peanut butter and other foods.
Breakfast cereal, for example, must contain certain levels of iron, cannot contain more than 21.2 grams of sugar per 100 grams of cereal, and must have whole grain as a primary ingredient in order to be bought under the WIC program.
Roe said those sorts of standards promote health, and should be emulated by the SNAP program.
"As a physician, I realize the importance of healthy eating, and as an obstetrician, I've seen how the WIC program helps empower families receiving assistance to use taxpayer dollars to purchase healthy, wholesome foods," he said.
"If these guidelines are good and healthy enough for women and children, then SNAP recipients should also benefit from adhering to the same standards."
— This story was corrected on Sept. 13 to clarify that a study found half of the beverages bought using SNAP benefits are sugary drinks. The initial story incorrectly said half of all SNAP benefits are used to buy sugary drinks.