Should food stamp recipients be allowed to use their benefits to buy soda and junk food?

Currently, it’s legal to buy pop, chips and cookies using food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But increasingly, public health experts concerned about obesity are raising questions about that policy, pitting them against longtime allies in the hunger prevention community. Today’s Question: Should food stamp recipients be allowed to use their benefits to buy soda and junk food?

  • Kurt

    No. It rather seems a slap in the face to the donors.

  • Rich in Duluth

    Yes, for several reasons.

    1. If you’re going to make a law affecting the poor, it should affect the rest of us. Limiting junk food in an effort to reduce obesity is a good goal, but these limits should be directed at the general population.

    2. These restrictions would further the stigma that the poor are “moochers”, when they are really just you and I in unfortunate circumstances.

    3. The poor are citizens and, as such, are free to make decisions about food, just as the rest of us are. Anything else is discrimination against them.

    4. We all need an occasional treat and junk food can be a treat. The poor have few treats.

    I could go on…

  • Dick

    No, as long as it doesn’t interfere with purchasing their cable or dish television and all data service packages on their cell phones

  • Al

    I know I am not going to be very popular for saying this but it has to be said. Recipients should not be able to use food stamps on junk food and soda. Food stamps are a supplement nutrition program. There is no nutrition in junk food/soda. They are a gift from the government supplied by the american tax payer. I do not think we would like to know the money we are being taxed to supply the program is going towards junk food/soda. One can say its a small treat here and there but recipients can use their own money for this. I have worked with extremely low income people where I volunteer. I have seen most of the families use their personal money on new video game systems/huge TVs instead of good nutritious food for their kids.

  • JEB

    As much as I am for personal freedom, in this case I do think purchases should be restricted. Eating unhealthy food on a regular basis contributes to long term health problems like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Someone on SNAP probably does not have the money to pay medical bills, so that goes on the taxpayer’s dime too. Not to mention someone who is chronically ill from poor diet has a harder time getting a well-paying job to get them off of SNAP due to absenteeism, doctor visits, etc. I don’t like the fact that my money is going to fuel their poor choices and the repercussions from them.

    If the person/family is only on SNAP for a short time, they can do without their “treats”. It is called tightening their belt, literally and figuratively.

  • Bear

    If the objective of food stamps is to provide supplemental nutrition, then absolutely not. Several nutrition studies have found pop, sweets, and other junk foods actually increase appetites, yet provide no nutritional value. This also applies to so called “diet food” e.g. diet Coke. So, allowing the purchase of junk food with food stamps is counter to the program’s objective.

  • Jeremy

    No, I believe food stamps are intended to provide nutrition to those who cannot afford to adequately feed themselves or their families. EBT should be more in line with WIC, limiting what can be purchased to only foods that are nutritionally beneficial. Any disposable income that was saved by using food stamps could be used to buy soda chips what ever recipients feel like spending it on. “Junk” food is expensive for what you get, it is a waste of money as well as a health issue.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Yes, exclude sweetened drinks, but “junk food” can be hard to define. The evidence is pretty clear that sugary soft drinks are a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic, and since they’re never actually needed (except for dissolving corrosion around battery terminals, according to Click and Clack), it would make sense to exclude them. On the other hand, if “junk food” is excluded, what happens when Mars trots out a vitamin-enriched Snickers bar, or Frito-Lay starts making protein-enhanced Doritos? We’d need a bureaucracy to determine the junk food status of products, almost on a case-by-case basis, and then it would be ripe for corruption.

  • Jim G

    No. In my humble opinion food stamps should only be used to purchase food my grandmothers would have recognized as food; bread, vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, pickled herring and sauerkraut.

  • Barbara

    And who would decide what’s in or out? What about fruit drinks that are less than 100% juice? Moms can’t buy a Capri Sun for their kids? Are cookies in but snack cakes out? Don’t you realize you would create MORE government by directing officials to keep a list of what’s acceptable and what’s not? And more cost and complication for retailers? SNAp runs on the normal channels of commerce – our grocery stores. Do we really want to live in a country where we tell those less fortunate than us how and what to eat? Poor kids don’t deserve a cupcake and Pepsi party on their 10th birthday around the kitchen table? There but for the Grace of God go you and I. Have a heart, think of the business impact, and think of your freedom.

  • James

    Yes. Food stamps should be allowed to be used for anything edible.

    Why? Because it would be a nightmare to implement and enforce any other system. Imagine asking $6/hour checkout clerks to enforce a “no soft drinks” rule. Imagine an elibible/ineligiible food labeling system. The lobbying by food companies to be eligible would be unbearable.

    This one feels a little like the free speech amendment of the constitution. If you are going to draw the line, where and how do you draw it? It’s impossible to draw the line without bad consequences, so don’t even try.

  • John P.

    I have about had it with people trying to run other peoples lives for them. Some people just seem to feel feel the need to correct the behavior of others. This sort of “I know what’s best for you” thinking seems to often come from the same people who complain that government is too intrusive.

    What do you do when you don’t have a car and the only store in the neighborhood is a convenience store with a few crappy banannas and a slighty brown head of lettuce? Stop it, just stop it.

  • John

    No, pop, snacks, processed foods are the reason we have so many extremely grossly fat people.

    I think airlines should weigh the entire package of people and luggage when you check in for a flight and charge accordingly. If your luggage can’t fit in the overhead they make you check it and if you can’t fit in the seat, you either shouldn’t be flying or you should buy two seats or first class.

  • snaab

    Maybe we could also direct the poor on how they think, not only what they put into their bodies.

    If someone on SNAP wants to purchase a bag of chip, how is that different than if they bought the raw potato, sliced it thin, and deep fried it in oil? I presume they are allowed to buy raw potatoes and vegetable oil.

    But, it’s out tax dollars cry the intolerant, so we must dictate how the poor eat.

  • Ann

    Does it make sense to allow it? Many people can’t afford soda, junk food, and convenience foods. It is too bad that the technology can’t limit the person to 20 percent luxury food. The rest would be basic food staples.There was a report that some of the food stamps can be used in pizza joints and other restaurants. I rarely splurge on restaurant food and I don’t receive food stamps.

  • Emily

    I think it would be quite a slippery slope to go down to have the gov’t order what a person on SNAP can or cannot buy. Those on SNAP are what most people (in the US) would call poor. If you are going to mandate what a poor person can or cannot buy on gov’t money, that is completely stigmatizing a sector of our community that is already stigmatized and marginalized. I feel as though this would be going back in time with measures that would further erode our society. Poor people already struggle day to day with multiple facets of their lives, and this would be one extra slap to the face through the hardships they already experience.

    How would a poor child feel in the grocery store when his mom/dad cannot buy him a treat, but sees other kids with their parents who have treats in their carts? That child will have numerous questions, “why can that little boy have those cookies but I can’t?” – we would be setting up more problems upon the ones we already have.

    Perhaps SNAP can look into a way to reward recipients who spend SNAP money on healthy foods.

  • Scott

    Yes, we should allow people to buy what they wish with SNAP benefits. Ultimately, trying to coerce people into eating healthier isn’t going to work and I see it as having real ethical issues.

    Add into this, if we want to place limits on individuals receiving food assistance can by why not place limits on everyone? Or people who are overweight? Or… Look, it just doesn’t make sense to try to prohibit certain foods. If it’s so bad for low income people to buy this stuff, then perhaps it’s so bad for everyone to buy this stuff.

    Adding in practical concerns about implementation is another reason to not do this. Do you want to be the person who makes the list of approved and unapproved foods? What will retailers be forced to do to police this?

    Let’s push an educational policy that gives people better information about food. Let’s teach kids how to cook. Let’s change our agricultural policy to stop encourage the over production of the stuff that goes into junk food and make healthy food cheaper and more available. Let’s support living wage jobs so people can afford to make better choices.

    If we want to reduce junk food consumption lets consider taxing it across the board. Let’s support policies that impact all of us equally. Proposals like this are the kind of paternalism that is pretty morally offensive if you actually start to dig more deeply. If obesity is a true issue of public health let’s work to meet it for all of society, not just those people who are easiest to coerce.

  • TJ

    Yes, they should be able to spend the money on whatever food they want to. It’s both insultingly patronizing (people on SNAP are poor, not stupid) and insanely impractical to try to create a blacklist of disallowed food.

    There are a lot of challenges for people who want to eat healthy on a limited budget. Cooking healthy foods takes more time, and if you have two jobs and are on your feet 12 hours a day, that might not be practical. On top of that, a lot of impoverished neighborhoods live in “food deserts” where a grocery store with fresh produce and other healthy choices are miles away. That’s a challenge without a car.

    If we want to encourage the purchase of healthy food, we need to start subsidizing healthy food instead of corn syrup. Then we’re helping everybody instead of pretending to solve a structural problem by micromanaging people whose lives are hard enough.

  • TJ

    Also, to the Dick complaining about poor people with cell phones: how do you think employers contact people to offer them a job? With carrier pigeons?

    You need a phone to get a job. Prepay cell phones are cheaper and far more practical than land lines, especially if you don’t have housing security.

  • David P.

    If an edible was required to have a net nutritional benefit to qualify as food, then the problem would be solved for all of us. Tax any edible item that does not pass this test and disqualify it for subsidies paid to producers. Junk food eaters don’t buy it because they don’t know any better; they buy it because the calories are cheaper. Junk food should cost more up front than fresh fruits and vegetables, they certainly cost society more in the long run.

  • david

    I bet the vast majority of people saying no here have never been poor and hungry a day in their lives. Sure someone will chime in how they were and spew some bs story how they got through it by living by the moral code they wish to force on others. The fact is when you live in a “food desert” and don’t have a car and have to take the bus to do your shopping, some times you just need to get by on what’s convenient at times. Go walk a mile or two in someone else’s shoes to the grocery store before spouting from your moral high horse.

  • GregX

    Actually this is a wrong approach. Its a beat down stick instead of a reward carrot.

    There should be an incentive for selecting healthy foods. Maybe a “rewards” style program from local utilities – like a $10 dollar credit against elec/heat if X% of budget is whole foods (whole meats, produce, rice, eggs, dairy) – OR – an extra $20 for holiday meals if that same X% is healthy foods.

    But… there has to be a way for getting healthy food in the highest density “food-stamp usage” neighborhoods.

    A more progressive solution might be to link CSA farms to inner city stores to provide local fruits, veggies, cheeses, produce … thus supporting both the CSA’s , the local economy ( shop owner and CSA) and healthy food choices.

    think through a system …

  • P. Nielsen

    Have to say no on this. Sweets and snack foods are not real food. Since Food Stamp assistance doesn’t go far enough for most families, these funds should only be used for real food items.

  • Al

    I knew the food desert comment would come up here. Lets assume one thing. Stores operate for the profits. If this is implemented, demand for junk/soda will drop and demand for healthy food would rise because SNAP recipients can no longer purchase junk/soda and only purchase healthier options. owner sees this and they want to optimize profits. Would they not order/supply more healthy foods? Would this shift not happen? I’ll add this to my previous comments

    BTW to david, i see you “BS comment” and raise you a real life experience. When I was in college, I was a full time engineering student and also working making less than 12k a year. I lived on my own without help from parents with rent, tuition and living expenses and no SNAP. I have walked in those shoes. If I was to go to a store i would have to walk .7 miles per google map and then take a bus. The co-op that was .5 mile walk was too expensive. It is possible.

    Also to TJ.i am sure that SNAP recipients do not need smart phones that cost $40/ month on top of the base plan. They can opt for a no data plan or get a land line. My sister works for a non profit that works strictly with low income students and she said MOST of them have smart phones. can you justify that?

  • georges

    Back in the days when Food Stamp purchases had to be paid for with actual Food Stamps, it was annoying to see the Poor buying Doritos and Pepsi and Twinkies, etc. (Now they just swipe a card, so it isn’t so “in-your-face” anymore).

    But, the annoyance at seeing the soda and snacks was small potatoes compared to the times I saw T-bone steaks, lobster tails, jumbo shrimp, king crab, etc. being bought with the Taxpayers dime. And it usually wasn’t a steak or two, or a small amount of tails or shrimp. No, they were having a PARTY, with huge stacks of the most expensive things, at our expense.

    Now, I eat a steak about 5 days a week, and have had a ribeye or porterhouse every single day for a month or more, many times. It is MY dime, and I will spend it how it pleases me. I made the money that bought it by MY hard WORK, my honest determination, my drive to succeed, my abilities alone.

    Living “high on the hog” is for those who DO the work, put in the effort, have the abilities and do what is right.

    When I see “the poor” living like they earned it, when they didn’t do anything except keep breathing, I laugh and buy a front row seat for the crash with the iceberg. It’s going to be a hell of a show.

    Do you know what the Poor call the first day of every month?

    They call it Payday.

    They don’t call it Thanksgiving Day. As in, Thank You Thank You Thank You for paying for my rent, and my food, and my phone bill and my utilities bills and all that free food. I am indebted to you for your generosity. Thank You.

    No, no Thanks at all. Payday. The day they get paid. For doing nothing. Except being there. Being here. In the U.S.A. Just a good ol’ payday for being here and doing no work whatsoever.


  • Jefferson

    Of course people on food stamps should not be buying junk food…they also shouldn’t be buying name brand food items. They should get the generic brand food and they should be limited on the fresh foods the can purchase as well…they should not be buying lobsters, scallops or even decent cuts of steak (i.e. sirlion, tenderloin, ribeye or t-bone). They should be using basic chicken, pork and ground chuck meat. This is a hand-out from the tax payer so it should be treated as such; it should motivate the food stamp user to get off of them and if they want a “nice dinner” or “something different” then do what everyone else does and pay for that food out of your own pocket.

  • TJ

    Al –

    I suppose I could come up with some reason the poor shouldn’t feel ashamed of themselves for spending $10/week on access to the greatest tool for communication, education, and entertainment ever created, but I don’t know that it would convince anyone who already resents that they do.

  • Jim G

    Eric Ringham,

    Please terminate this question. In light of the school shooting I propose you start a Memorial Page to the victims.

  • inuit

    I feel great sympathy for the victims and their families.

    You do, too.

    Together, we can stipulate that every sane person feels the same as you and me.

    Therefore, there is no reason to change the TQ to just another Memorial Fest.

    There are already plenty of those, for the interested.

  • david

    Al your reasoning that the free market would invoke convenience markets to start selling healthy food at reasonable prices is flawed at best. I don’t know where to begin pointing out its ridiculousness and don’t feel like bothering. The very fact that you assume enough residences in a given neighborhood are on food stamps and scamming the system to shape market forces, not that the markets forces are shaping them, shows just how ignorant you are.

    And try to find a job without some sort of internet connection and convenient access to email. Even Chipotle requires you to apply on line. And the only job listings are online too. While you were walking to the bus did you also have to head over to the library to stand in line for computer access to look for the latest job postings ? I know more then a few people whose $40 smartphone plan is their only connection to the outside world beside over the air tv and radio. I am in that category and typing this that way right now on my lunch break. And no I am not and never have been on food stamps. So the whining i hear on this board every time poverty is brought up shows just how ignorant, hypocritical, and just plain selfish the “moral right” is. Sad.

  • Ed

    We need to have a sales tax on non-nutritional edibles.

    People consume junk food because it is cheap, easy, and provides instant gratification.

  • Steve the Cynic

    We don’t need another TQ on another school shooting. We’ve been over that before. One group will opine that this wouldn’t have happened if the shooter hadn’t had access to guns, and another will assert that the solution is to arm all the teachers and train them in commando tactics. Meanwhile, the memories of the victims of this real human tragedy will be desecrated by becoming a political football.

  • snaab


    How about computers (but not the internet), can the poor have those, because buying one is sort of a large capital expense, and surely if they have that kind of money laying around, they can afford to stop suckling on the gubmints teat for a cookie.

    How about a down parka. Man do I get steamed when I see a poor person staying warm with a down parka (do you know how much they cost).

    Don’t get me started on them owning a car.

  • kurt nelson

    My prejudices on this very subject have recently been confronted, with a niece.

    Married just out of high school, then a baby(my godson, whom I am very proud of, he’s adorable), and an absent father. She and I differed on certain financial decisions she was making, in light of the assistance she receives from the government.

    We had an adult discussion, and she convinced me that she is well aware of her role as a recipient of this largess, and she showed me why it was her decision to make, and I trust her.

    I still don’t condone all her financial decisions, but as a working mom, full time in the service industry, taking a full load at the local community college, and raising this young man, who the hell am I to judge whether she has a smart phone plan. I guess after reading the comments here, I’m glad the little man hates candy too.

  • Angela

    My sister receives a large portion of state aid – and this includes food stamps. She lies to the state about her income (her fiance lives with her) and receives more aid.

    She hasn’t worked in years and she quite frankly eats like a queen. I don’t get to have lobster and crab leg dinners once a week. I get that one every other month if I’m lucky.

    I haven’t been able to have kids as I feel I wouldn’t be able to financially support that child. She can pop them out without any afterthought. Even though her prescription coverage is free through the state which means she can just as easily pop a pill once a day.

    Now that my husband and I are financially sound enough we have chosen to have a child.

    I would never want to be on state aid – I like my income and I like working hard for it.

    I think that she should be forced to show that she is taking the steps to join the workforce again or going to school. I don’t believe she should be able to mooch off the system for years.

    Aid should be a short term fix – not a long term fix for those that want to be lazy and not try to take the steps to be able to contribute to society and themselves by going to school or going back to work.

  • me

    pop? You mean soda? Goes to show that you can control every thing so get off the power trip. Just because people are poor doesn’t mean you have a right to control them. I wish people would worry more about their own family’s and less about what other people are doing what their are eating and who they are screwing.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Um, Angela,….

    Welfare fraud is a felony. If your sister is lying to get more benefits, you should consider warning her about that (or threatening to turn her in, depending on how you feel about her).

  • JC Dwyer

    This debate wrongly assigns blame to the food stamps program for the complex issue of obesity, when there is significant research evidence that SNAP participation actually improves dietary health. It is also an entirely notional solution to the problem of obesity — we do not know how restrictions would affect consumer behavior, but we do know that changing the structure of SNAP (essentially adding an entire new level of bureaucracy and a dual bottom line) would have costs for the program, among them increased stigma for responsible adults who receive the benefit.

    The comparison with WIC is likewise spurious. WIC is a short, affirmative list of allowable foods based on a broad consensus about the nutritional needs of infants and small children. SNAP critics are instead calling for a negative list — a screen that must be applied to every item in the store, including the thousands of new items that are introduced each year, representing a much higher cost to the retailer. They want to create this list without scientific consensus on the nutritional needs of the myriad, diverse populations that benefit from SNAP. This creates an opening for intense lobbying efforts by various food manufacturers, similar to those engaged in defining the content of school meals, and reformers shouldn’t be surprised if the outcome is likewise a swamp of regulation that does more to perpetuate poor diets than anything else.

    While I don’t doubt the sincerity of health advocates in seeking to improve the health of low-income consumers, they should take pause and see who is joining them in this fight. The majority of lawmakers seeking to restrict SNAP at the state level are hard-line conservatives with no intention of reforming the program. Instead, restrictions are just one more debate they have co-opted in order to drag SNAP’s good name through the mud. Given the intense pressure at the federal level to cut funding for this very successful program, one would think health advocates would consider retooling their strategies so as not to provide cover for lawmakers who only wish to malign poor people and the programs on which they depend.