A few weeks ago we ran a feature about photographer Al Clayton, a Pickens County resident whose pictures of poverty in the Deep South were instrumental in the passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964. The photos are heart wrenching – filthy children stand next to barren, moldy refrigerators; toothless mothers are surrounded by mouths they can’t feed.
About 30 years before the Food Stamp Act was passed, the Food Stamp Program was implemented as a way to use surplus food (usually produce or other dietary staples such as grain) from America’s farmers to help feed the nation’s poor.
Fast forward to present day. The 47 million people currently using food stamps – an $80-billion-a-year federal program now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [S.N.A.P.] – can ironically spend their allotted money (all of it if they want) on things that can hardly be considered “nutrition,” or on luxury items many working Americans can’t afford.
Case in point - a reporter with DailyCaller.com bought $100 worth of Halloween candy one week with food stamps to test the system. S.N.A.P. recipients can also buy soda, energy drinks and bakery cakes (one Progress employee knows a couple that bought their wedding cake using S.N.A.P.).
The only items off the table are alcohol, tobacco and “hot items” at in-store delis. Some states even allow EBT cards (what you use to make food stamp purchases) to be used at fast-food restaurants.
S.N.A.P., which makes up the lion’s share of the Farm Bill budget and awards participants an average of $133 a month per person or $289 per household, needs to be reformed. We’re not questioning its necessity because food stamps truly are a safety net for America’s poor. We are grateful the program is here to help people in need – but it should not contribute to national health problems like obesity and diabetes that are more common among the poor, or allow recipients to spend taxpayer money on Monster energy drinks or five packages of Ding Dongs.
If there are no rules once you’re approved for S.N.A.P., what’s the motivation to come off?
Critics argue that telling people what they can and can’t eat is being paternalistic - but people on food stamps already have some (if only a few) limitations on what they can buy, and programs like WIC are very limiting. There should be no difference.
And if you are spending our taxpayer money then we do have a right to dictate the terms including what you buy.
S.N.A.P. - which claims to feed America’s hungry with healthy food options - actually offers next to no data to support their claim. In a Washington Times piece a reporter investigates what’s being spent with food stamps (veggies vs. chips or grape soda vs. milk) and how much is being spent at each retail store – what they found was that the government keeps this information very close to the hip.
“Americans spend $80 billion each year financing food stamps for the poor,” the article says, “but the country has no idea where or how the money is spent.” Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, went so far as to sue the USDA for the information.
Why the secrecy? Because with any government-funded program the lobbying that goes on behind the scenes plays a huge role in public policy. Mega corporations like Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co. and industry trade leaders like the American Beverage Association, National Association of Convenience Store Operators and other junk food giants spend millions to keep S.N.A.P purchases unrestricted because they are such huge beneficiaries.
An investigative reporter with Eat Drink Politics found that while most details about S.N.A.P money stay secret, “In two years,” she finds, “Walmart received about half of the $1 billion in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma.”
Maintaining a blinders-on approach to what S.N.A.P. beneficiaries are allowed to buy - coupled with a total absence of transparency from the federal government about what is being bought - makes the program suspicious and ineffective.
We support S.N.A.P., but it needs a major overhaul including increased transparency and common-sense limitations on what can be bought.