Banning SNAP use on ‘bad’ foods won’t work — and could backfire 

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Will banning use of food stamps on “bad” foods improve the health of low-income Americans? Some in Washington say they want to find out. 

Language in the recently released House Agricultural Appropriations bill for fiscal 2025 will authorize up to five states to pilot restrictions on the types of food available for purchase using benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. 

Proponents in Congress argue that such restrictions are needed to save taxpayers in future health care costs due to poor diet. Others, notably some nutritionists and food advocates, are eager to reduce the incidence of obesity and diet-linked diseases often associated with the overconsumption of ultra-processed foods heavy in sugar, fat or salt.   

I’ve spent years researching SNAP’s history, political durability and its impacts on food insecurity, poverty and health. Proposals to ban SNAP use on “bad” foods are perennial features of program politics going as far back as debates over the first Food Stamp Act, signed into law on Aug. 31, 1964. None were approved, and this time should be no different. Whatever the motivations behind them, such restrictions won’t work. 

First, the ultra-processed foods these proposals target are cheap, convenient and engineered for flavor. That is why people of all incomes buy them. And poor people aren’t stupid; they’re just trying to get the greatest caloric bang for the buck.

In this regard, a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese, at 17 cents per ounce, is a better deal than an ounce of broccoli or fresh fish. It’s simple economics. 

Because these products are inexpensive, banning SNAP use on them won’t have the desired effect. SNAP enrollees simply will use other funds on them, in what economists call an inframarginal effect. After all, SNAP is “supplemental,” and most enrolled households have cash on hand to spend $3 on that 2-liter bottle of Pepsi if they want one. 

Such bans also are administratively burdensome. Sure, we can program electronic benefits transfer cards to reject specific products, but who decides which are “bad” in the first place? Congress? Good luck. Witness the battles over which foods get included in subsidized school meals or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and you get the point. 

So do food retailers, who hate the idea. Even with benefit cards, SNAP users already need to use spare cash to purchase ineligible non-food items and hot prepared foods. (Yes, that $4.99 rotisserie chicken at Costco is off-limits. Go figure.) More restrictions will cause even more inconvenience and delay at checkout, annoying all customers, and may lead some retailers to bring back separate “SNAP checkout” lines to deal with inevitable hassles. Small neighborhood stores may decide that the marginal revenues from SNAP aren’t worth the bother, reversing longtime government efforts to expand retailer participation. 

Finally, such bans will only add to the sense of shame SNAP users already feel, which for some politicians seems to be the point. It is tough enough being poor without also having to endure more scrutiny at the checkout line. Getting rid of colored food stamps in favor of the benefits card at least made SNAP users look like other consumers. Nutritionists should not be in league with people who only want to punish the poor.

That’s not to say that SNAP could not be made to help enrolled households purchase and consume healthier foods. What works? Not surprisingly, more money. Any number of studies find that SNAP users respond well to “healthy incentives” programs, “bounty bucks” and other targeted SNAP “bonus” programs. All are shown to generate increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.  

In fact, the controversial adjustment in the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, the baseline on which SNAP benefits are calculated, was in part to enable SNAP household to purchase healthier foods, not simply cheaper ones. That adjustment led to a roughly 20 percent increase in overall benefit levels, with consequent positive effects for SNAP household food security and health. 

Restricting SNAP usage also is bad politics. Nutritionists should not kid themselves: The entire basis of food industry support for SNAP depends on all foods being eligible for purchase. Start to declare some products as off-limits and entire sectors in the food industry will decide that SNAP is not worth supporting. You may not like some of the foods that PepsiCo, Conagra or General Mills produce, but you want those companies on your side when the budget knives come out.

And that’s part of SNAP opponents’ strategy. Lose corporate support, and SNAP soon becomes a restrictive voucher program with far less political clout, largely because it covers comparatively few foods. This is why advocates for the Women, Infants and Children program have to go back to Capitol Hill every year, hat in hand.  

So, those supporting SNAP restrictions because they want to improve the health of low-income Americans should be careful. Their momentary political allies may have very different motivations.

Christopher Bosso is professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. 

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