Congress SNAP Challenge: Can You Live On Food Stamps? Sure. Should Congress Encourage It? Definitely Not

 The House farm bill, which aimed to cut $20 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food-stamp program, has prompted Republican staffer Donny Ferguson to experiment with and prove firsthand that the proposed budget cuts are not only reasonable but actually quite generous. However, while this may be good policy today, it could very well lead to more harm than good in the long run.    

SNAP currently gives participants $31.50 per week to spend on food, which averages to $4.50 per day or $1.50 per meal. Over two dozen House Democrats have already attempted the SNAP challenge and failed miserably. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) only made it through one day of the challenge before he felt “terrible, absolutely terrible” because he was not able to purchase nutritious foods with $4.50 per day. Most others echoed his sentiments.

Enter Donny Ferguson, the communications director and agriculture policy adviser for Representative Steve Stockman (R-Texas), who claims to have not only completed the SNAP challenge, but to have completed it with $4 and extra food to spare — evidence that “we can cut the proposed benefits by an additional 12.4 percent and still be able to eat for a week.” His purchases for the week included cereal, beans, rice, cookies, popsicles, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, instant oatmeal, applesauce, root beer, pasta, and milk.  Ferguson stated, “I could have bought cheaper vegetables instead of prepared red beans and rice, but I like red beans and rice. Folks aren’t buying fast food instead of vegetables because of benefit limits, they’re buying fast food because fast food tastes great and vegetables taste like vegetables.” 

Some Republicans might point to Ferguson’s success with the SNAP challenge as proof that Congress is being too generous with the current $31.50 allotment, but let’s think long-run here. While I have no doubt that Ferguson (or anyone else) is capable of providing ample sustenance for himself for one week with $31.50, the bigger issue is whether someone is able to do so in a way consistent with the original intended purpose of SNAP, and the answer to that is probably not.

In a nation where more than one-third of adults are obese, 8.3% of the population is diagnosed with diabetes, and one in every four deaths is caused by heart disease, healthy eating may be a bigger concern than many of us realize.  While a $20 billion cut might help cure the budget today, in the long run it may have the opposite effect. By investing in healthy eating, we may actually save money in the long run if that leads to a decline in prevalent diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Think of it like birth control — it might cost us something today, but it sure is a heck of a lot cheaper than raising a kid.