WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2017 - Should SNAP recipients be allowed to use their benefits to buy soda or other food items usually considered to be unhealthy? That was the question considered by the House Agriculture Committee at a hearing today, but there was no definitive answer.

A statement issued by Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, following the hearing reflected the range of opinion on the subject. “While there is a case to be made for encouraging recipients to make healthy purchasing decisions, there are also concerns worth noting when it comes to restricting certain food and beverage options,” he said.

A report released by the Food and Nutrition Service in November found that SNAP recipients spent about 20 cents of every dollar on “sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar,” Conaway noted. And witness Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “SNAP households spent more on sweetened beverages than fruits and milk combined.”

About 44 million people received SNAP benefits totaling about $66.6 billion in fiscal 2016, according to USDA. The average monthly benefits per person were about $125.

Rachidi, who helped run the SNAP program in New York City, spoke favorably about USDA’s Healthy Incentives Pilot, which was funded by the 2008 farm bill.

“I am sympathetic to not wanting the government to stigmatize or unfairly targeted poor households,” she said in her testimony. “But SNAP is a government-funded program with a clearly stated goal: to improve the nutrition of low-income households.”

USDA’s evaluation of the program found that financial incentives “increased consumption of certain fruits and vegetables by a small, but statistically significant amount,” Rachidi said. “It also found that retailers had little trouble implementing the pilot.”

But most of the committee members and witnesses at the hearing said that having the government restrict SNAP purchases was not a good idea.

“That’s something we ought not to be doing here in Washington,” said Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who has been a vocal supporter of the program. He said a better idea would be to increase benefits, which now average about $4.50 per person per day.

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said soda and candy are not the villains. “That’s not what makes us obese,” he said, pointing instead to kids’ obsession with the Internet and a corresponding lack of exercise.

“I think a better way to go about solving many of these things is to look at how we educate people,” he said. “You can’t deny them their freedoms to be able to make choices without violating their pursuit of happiness.”

Both Scott and a Republican on the committee, Rodney Davis of Illinois, raised the specter of the “food police.”

“Who’s going to pick up that extra cost to have the food police there monitoring?” Scott asked. Moments later, Davis said, “I don’t think that we have a role here in being the food police.”

Of the five witnesses, only Rachidi was in favor of restricting purchases, which she said should be done along with offering incentives to buy healthier foods. The others said that implementing restrictions would be cost-prohibitive and could stigmatize recipients.

“A ban will likely increase the administrative costs of the program to both the USDA and retailers, and increase the stigma faced by recipients when they use the benefits, but not have the benefit of inducing any behavioral changes,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, senior fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institution.

Leslie Sarasin, CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, agreed. First, she said, defining what should be allowed and what should be prohibited is a very difficult question. Regarding “sweetened beverages,” she said, “We’re talking about a category of products as if we all understand what that means.” Yogurt drinks, for example, have “all kinds of nutrients, but also contain sugar. In addition, each year, “tens of thousands of products” would have to be classified and added to a computer system, she said.

“It would create real havoc in our stores,” she said. FMI represents food retailers and wholesalers.

But Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., one of a handful of committee members who appeared to favor restrictions, asked, “Shouldn’t we try because we’re having all this effort in recent years over fighting obesity?” Allowing SNAP purchases of unhealthy food comes at “great cost to the people that are the assistance part of this program,” he said.

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Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa. and vice chair of the committee, said afterwards that the committee’s goal is to ensure that SNAP “is focused on nutrition.”

“Today was one of those issues we really need to deal with. How do we assure that we’re meeting nutritional needs. I know we heard a commitment to the importance of nutrition in people’s lives. How do we make sure that SNAP is focused on the nutrition?”

Asked whether he favors restrictions on candy and soda, he said, “I do think that there needs to be a nutritional aspect to it to be eligible for SNAP,” but acknowledged that as the committee starts working on the nutrition title of the farm bill, “This is one of the more contentious parts of it.”

The other two witnesses were John Weidman, deputy executive director of The Food Trust in  Philadelphia, and Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, New York.


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