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As a teaching assistant for an undergraduate nutrition course at Cornell, I often receive many questions that go beyond the scope of topics covered in the course. Most recently, one of my students inquired whether SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, regulates the types of food being purchased with food stamps. Unsure, I decided to look further into the topic, and was pretty astonished at the answer.

SNAP, informally known as both the Food Stamp Program and Food Supplement Program, states that its goal is to help low-income households gain access to more nutritious foods. SNAP provides eligible participants, about 45 million people, with benefits that help to alleviate food insecurities. Other than limiting purchases to foods that are intended for at-home consumption and prohibiting the purchase of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, non-food items, vitamins, medicines, and food for pets, SNAP places no nutritional restrictions on the foods that participants may purchase — the answer to my student’s inquiry. This begs the question — should the types of foods purchased using SNAP benefits be regulated to ensure that the goal of improved nutrition is met?

An analysis completed by the United States Department of Agriculture found that SNAP participants vary only slightly compared to Americans from high-income households in their food choices from most broadly defined food categories; there was little difference in consumption of meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. However, the report concluded that users of SNAP are prone to use their benefits to purchase cornbread, corn tortillas, potatoes, whole milk, and regular sodas. They were also less prone to purchase whole grains, raw vegetables, reduced-fat milk, and sugar-free soda. These worrisome statistics reveal that participants of SNAP are not using their benefits to improve the nutritional quality of their diets. Additionally, participants of SNAP were less likely to consume fruits and vegetables, which are crucial components of healthy diets. Essentially, the actual purchases within specific food categories were found to be less nutritious in comparison to Americans from higher-income households. If SNAP participants are spending their SNAP benefits on these foods, it is likely that they are consuming these junk food products more often than is advised by nutritionists and dieticians.  Even more concerning is the fact that many of the unhealthy foods being consumed will increase the progression of atherosclerosis, which can ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease, heart attack, or stroke.

The disparity in nutritious food purchases may be attributed to the fact that people from low socioeconomic backgrounds tend to purchase cheaper foods. A study completed by researchers from the University of Washington found that the socioeconomic difference in the quality and nutrition of diets is highly correlated to the price of food. Therefore, SNAP participants, who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are more likely to purchase unhealthy foods. While the SNAP website claims that there is no correlation between participation in their program and the incidence of obesity or being overweight, there are almost no restrictions limiting the nutritional value of what participants purchase.  In addition, it has been reported that in some participant subgroups, participation in the program is related to the likelihood of being obese or overweight.

Clearly SNAP should alter its program to ensure that its participants are actually improving the nutritious quality of their diets. One option to achieve this goal would be to impose restrictions of junk food purchases for SNAP participants. This option has been supported by many lawmakers, as it would increase the purchase of healthier food options and potentially save billions of dollars in obesity and weight-related medical expenses.

Another potential option could be to introduce mandatory nutrition education for the program’s users.  When college students accept federal loans and subsidies to finance their educations, they must undergo entrance and exit counseling to ensure that they understand the obligations and responsibilities they are assuming. Similarly, eligible SNAP participants should be subject to education about nutrition before joining the program. While this certainly will not ameliorate the purchase of junk food, it is likely that this information could have a major impact on the choices participants make when grocery shopping.