During the recent House Agriculture Committee markup and Senate Floor consideration of Farm Bill reauthorization legislation, one of the most contentious issues was not direct payments or other traditional Farm Programs.  It was food stamps, now called SNAP.

 Sure, the dairy and sugar amendments were hotly debated and came up for votes, and disaster relief has also drawn significant attention due to concern regarding the drought, but the extensive debate surrounding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) surprised many. Much of the debate centered on the amount of funding for the program and the structure of the program, i.e. should SNAP be a block grant?  But, perhaps the most difficult issue of all is whether or not to restrict the types of foods and beverages that can be purchased by SNAP participants.

The issue of SNAP choice is very controversial, with traditional party divisions being really of no consequence.  On one hand, as the argument goes, the obesity epidemic is our biggest public health problem—a problem that is costing the United States close to $150 billion annually,[1] just in medical expenses.  This number does not include lost productivity at work or the toll the disease takes on the mental health and quality of life of the victims.  If unchecked, this epidemic will severely cripple our nation economically and have wide ranging detrimental effects, including compromising our national security.

To address this issue, the argument continues, the government should do anything and everything it can.  Federal food assistance programs reach millions of individuals, so it seems as though restricting SNAP purchases to “healthy” foods would be the perfect opportunity to improve the health of the overall population.

Further, the thinking goes, since SNAP is funded with taxpayer money, it should be up to the government to set standards for the participants and for the foods that can be purchased. 

On the other hand, a coalition of anti-hunger groups and the food and retail industries argue that the government should not dictate what consumers are allowed to purchase, even if it is with government funds.  In other words, an individual’s opportunity to purchase an item should not be restricted simply because a person is of a certain socioeconomic class.  In addition, many question the efficacy of making certain foods privileged, available only to rich people. 

Both sides of the SNAP choice debate present compelling arguments, but SNAP choice must be preserved. SNAP participants must have the right to make the same decisions we all make.  Education and incentives are the way to proceed, not turning SNAP back into the old U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodity distribution program.

Working to improve the nutrition of children and adults has been a life-long passion, dating back to my days working for Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole on the development of the very first Dietary Goals for the United States in 1977.  This was the precursor to the American Dietary Guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980, and every five years thereafter. 

We must deal with the obesity problem in a bold way, while not forgetting we still have hunger in America. The dual problem of hunger and obesity requires innovative ways to address the issues, but I do not believe that restricting the foods which can be purchased by SNAP participants is one of them. 

There are several problems with SNAP restrictions, including feasibility and stigmatization.  If we examine SNAP restrictions, we find that there are significant problems with implementation.  First, the government would need to decide what would be permitted and what would be excluded.  Seems simple, right?  Easier said than done.  We need only look to the new school nutrition regulations to understand just how complicated it is to define good and bad foods.     

There are over 300,000 food and beverage products on the market today, and approximately 15,000 new products introduced in an average year.It would require a complex nutritional profiling system to determine what should or should not be included—a system which does not currently exist. The development and maintenance of such a database listing permissible and restricted foods would require a significant layer of government bureaucracy with commensurate administrative costs which many would not support. In addition, the technology at the checkout to identify whether or not a food is on the list would incur prohibitive costs to grocers and push many smaller stores out of the SNAP program—smaller stores that are often the only place people in very rural or urban areas can purchase food.

In addition to the feasibility problems, SNAP restrictions would be in direct opposition to the efforts we have taken to reduce the stigma associated with participation by replacing paper stamps with a debit type card.    

Finally, while Congress is looking for the opportunity to vote against obesity, just how effective would SNAP restrictions be in actually decreasing obesity rates?   USDA has indicated that the purchases of SNAP participants are “nearly identical” to non-participants.  SNAP benefits are not being used solely for “junk food.”   USDA believes “incentives that encourage purchases of certain foods or expanded nutrition education to enable participants to make healthy choices are more practical options and likely to be more effective in achieving the dietary improvements that promote good health.”  I agree. 

There is a superficial simplicity to restricting SNAP choice, but preserving freedom of choice is the stronger argument. USDA has it right—nutrition education and incentives to purchase healthier foods will be more effective than telling SNAP participants they cannot purchase empty calories.  

About the Author: Marshall Matz serves on the Board of the World Food Program—US; the Congressional Hunger Center and the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. He is a partner at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.mmatz@ofwlaw.com

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