Food Stamp Police?
March 1, 2007
Food Stamp Police?
By Bob Gatty
The USDA is opposing a “Good Food, Bad Food”proposal and says Food Stamp restrictions would be unworkable and unfair.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has published a white paper opposing restrictions on the use of Food Stamp benefits for specific foods based on their nutritional profiles. Such a proposal, the agency said, would require a new bureaucracy — in effect, a Food Stamp “police.”
The document said proposals by some consumer advocates would be virtually impossible to implement and enforce, and would have questionable impact on reducing the consumption of foods deemed to be “unhealthy.” Advocates hope to have their ideas included in the new Farm Bill under consideration in Congress. The Snack Food Association opposes such restrictions and has been working on Capitol Hill and at the USDA to prevent them from being included in the Farm Bill.
“The body of research on the Food Stamp program does not support the view that restricting food choices will result in more healthful food purchases and consumption or improved dietary outcomes,” the FNS declared.
The SFA supports the Food and Nutrition Service position on this issue and has opposed efforts to single out low-income food stamp recipients and restrict their choices when they purchase food for their families.
The FNS pointed out that participation in the Food Stamp program increases household spending on food, but that recipients are careful shoppers, both in terms of shopping for the best prices and getting the most value for their money.
“A majority of benefits are spent on basic food items: vegetables, fruits, grain products, meat and meat alternatives account for nearly three-quarters of the money value of food used by Food Stamp households,” the paper said.
The document added that food stamps recipients are no more likely to consume soft drinks than are higher-income individuals, and are less likely to consume sweets and salty snacks. According to the report, 29.6% of Food Stamp recipients report consuming salty snacks at least once per day compared to 36.5% of persons with income over 130% of the poverty level.
“No evidence exists that Food Stamp program participation causes obesity,” the FNS declared. “While poverty is associated with obesity in some population groups, and Food Stamp program participation is closely linked with poverty, the independent effect of program participation on obesity is unknown.”
The FNS said that the idea of restricting the use of Food Stamp benefits would have the following effects:
No clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy. Federal dietary guidelines apply to the total diet, and there are no “widely accepted” standards to judge the healthfulness of individual foods.
There are more than 300,000 food products on the market, and an average of 12,000 new products were introduced annually between 1990 and 2000. “The task of identifying, evaluating, and tracking the nutritional profile of every food available for purchase would be substantial,” resulting in an increased bureaucracy or certification requirements for manufacturers and producers.
The burden of enforcement would be placed in the hands of store employees at checkout counters, an especially difficult task for stores without scanning. Even with scanning, confusion at the register would reduce productivity.
Food Stamp recipients would face increased complexity and potential for embarrassment if restrictions on the use of benefits are expanded, the study said.
A new definition of ineligible items would increase the likelihood of compliance violations, with both recipients and retailers facing sanctions.
Restrictions might be ineffective in changing the purchase behavior of Food Stamp participants. Since about 70% of recipients buy some of their food with their own money, restricting the use of Food Stamps would not prevent them from purchasing restricted foods, the FNS said.
The FNS paper, in discussing the “slippery slope” of characterizing foods, said that part of the problem is that foods contain many components that singly or collectively can affect health, and diets contain many foods.
Attention paid to the presence or absence of single nutrients and to the relationship between those nutrients and particular diseases often comes at the expense of attention to the overall diet, the agency noted, pointing out that:
Soft drinks have less total fat, saturated fat and sodium per serving than some granola bars.
One manufacturer markets a low-calorie carbonated beverage fortified with calcium and real fruit juice that has fewer calories and total sugars (although more added sugars) per serving than a typical serving of orange juice.
Some brands of potato chips have less sodium per serving than some of the most popular brands of breakfast cereal.
Some candy bars have a lower percentage of calories from fat and less saturated fat than a serving of Cheddar cheese.
The SFA and its members continue to work towards the goal of promoting healthier diets that do not require such restrictions as the FNS document emphasized. Incentives — rather than restrictions — that encourage the purchase of certain foods or expanded nutrition education to enable participants to make healthy choices are more practice options, likely to be more effective in achieving the dietary improvements that promote good health.