Before I begin, let’s go over a few basics. “Food stamps” are a thing of the past, and the program is now referred to as “SNAP.” SNAP stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” “Supplemental” is defined as “added to something else to make it complete;” “nutrition” is defined as “the process of eating the right kind of food so you can grow properly and be healthy;” “assistance” means “help or support;” and “program” means “a plan of things that are done in order to achieve a specific result.”
Thus, assuming that words have meanings, one can infer that SNAP is a program designed to help poorer people acquire food that will help them grow properly and be healthy. It can also be inferred that the presence of the word “supplemental” means that the program is not supposed to cover one’s entire food budget.
Currently, any food or beverage item that isn’t alcohol or made hot in a store is eligible to be purchased with SNAP funds. This includes candy bars, energy drinks, baked goods, and other items that have negligible or no nutritional value. Lawmakers in Missouri have attempted to put the program back on track and have proposed a bill that would prohibit SNAP funds to be spent on items such as cookies, chips, soda, energy drinks, seafood, and steak. While I’m inclined to agree with critics who say a ban on seafood or steak goes too far and should probably be tweaked, I think this is a good start.
If a person wants cookies, chips, or baked goods badly enough, there is nothing in the bill to prevent someone from using SNAP funds to purchase flour and other ingredients to simply make these things from scratch. (Or, of course, they could purchase these items with regular cash.) Virtually every household in the United States, including those below the poverty line, has a refrigerator and an stove/oven. As of 2005, eight out of 10 households under the poverty line have microwaves, which can also be used to make cakes and cookies in a pinch. There’s no reason why the government should be subsidizing the purchase of Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Chips Ahoy or Doritos as part of a nutrition program.
Other states should follow Missouri’s lead and attempt to limit what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP funds. Studies have shown that long-term use of SNAP is correlated with an increase in obesity rates, which in turn will eventually cost the state more money in medical costs. Soda is also a leading cause of obesity and tooth decay. These are not the desired outcomes the state should be subsidizing.
Unfortunately, changing SNAP into a program for nutritious foods only will not be easy. The USDA is in charge of what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP funds, and they have not budged in the past on restricting soda and unhealthy foods from the program. Still, increased pressure from states should send a message that they’re not okay with subsidizing the purchases of unhealthy foods.
The goal of a program like SNAP should be to eventually ensure that people get back on their feet and begin working so they no longer need government assistance to buy food. Maine has seen great success with reinstating a work requirement for able-bodied childless adults receiving SNAP funds, with more than 9,000 people leaving the program. Mandating that SNAP purchases are nutritious would be a great help in creating a healthy workforce.