Should Federal Food Aid Come with Freedom of Choice?

Jun 27, 2015 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown

Food stamps don't come with many restrictions. But some lawmakers are looking to change that. Are politicians on either side of the issue interested in genuinely debating the question, or is it just politics as usual?

In a capitalist system, money is a certain kind of freedom. In the world of the vendible, where money is no object you don't have to settle for what you can afford, nor must you confine yourself merely to what you need. The world is your oyster—including if you want to eat oysters all day.

Such differences between the haves and have-nots may not be especially controversial in terms of luxury items. Food, however, is essential enough that the government indirectly provides it to those in need. But the devil in the details sparks debate about just how much choice recipients should have when they get food on the government dole.

The latest forum for such debate is Wisconsin, where legislatures are proposing a law to restrict what SNAP recipients (i.e., Wisconsin residents who are aided by the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, a.k.a. "food stamps") can buy. For example, SNAP assistance could not be used to purchase shellfish, and at least 67% of the total amount of SNAP assistance an individual receives in a given month could be used only for items on a list of approved foodstuffs, a list that excludes nuts, white potatoes, herbs and spices, pizza, canned soup, and organic juice, among many other items.

Wisconsin is not the only state considering such restrictions. For example, the Missouri legislature recently introduced a bill to bar SNAP recipients there from using program benefits to purchase "cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak."

Proponents claim such restrictions promote healthier eating. If the government is providing opt-in food aid with the explicit goal of supplementing nutrition, why shouldn't the government be able to steer the use of that aid in a healthier direction? Such guidance is probably nowhere more needed than in poor communities. And because better eating equates with better health, society as a whole benefits via less government expenditure on health problems related to poor eating.

But opponents argue that not only are such restrictions ultimately ineffective, they serve to make the lives of SNAP recipients more difficult by limiting their freedom to choose what they eat, which is experienced as a humiliation, yet another way in which the poor are treated as less deserving than the rest of society. Just because these people need government aid is no reason to treat them like children.

In legislatures nationwide the argument over such SNAP restrictions splits directly down party lines (Republicans in favor, Democrats opposing). But when it comes to using SNAP benefits to purchase fast food, some Democrats find themselves leaning across the aisle.

If you've driven past a Jack in the Box in an underprivileged California neighborhood (as in a few other states), you've probably seen the sign: EBT Accepted Here. It means SNAP recipients can take their Electronic Benefits Transfer card into the place and get themselves a Jumbo Jack, Seasoned Curly Fries, and a 42-oz. Coke on Uncle Sam.

In case you don't know Jack, that isn't healthy eating. But EBT totals around $100 billion annually, and about five years ago the fast-food industry began maneuvering to gobble up as much of that pie as it can.

A major player behind that move was Yum! Brands, whose holdings include Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut, all of which have gotten in on the game. And while the good that does for these and other fast-food restaurants' bottom lines is obvious, that profit may come at a loss for the community at large. "It's preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition," Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told USA Today in 2011.

That rationale, along with the cost-inefficiency of dining out, is why in January Rep. Kelly Townsend put a bill in front of the Arizona legislature to add fast-food restaurants to the list of businesses (along with casinos, "adult entertainment" establishments, etc.) where EBT cannot be used.

"We all know what’s in that fast food,” she said, “and taxpayers don’t want to subsidize junk food. [… Moreover, i]f you’ve got a budget crisis and you are looking out for ways to reduce your costs, you stop eating out and you buy your food from the grocery store, If you go to Jack in the Box, the meal is going to cost you $7,” she continued. “You could have taken that $7 and gotten a gallon of milk and a box of Cheerios or something that will last you."

But Townsend's bill died in committee, partly over concerns that such restrictions would impede the ability of handicapped persons to feed themselves.

"The concern to us is if somebody lacks the ability or the means to cook their own meal, [EBT is] kind of their use of how to get food," said J.J. Rico, executive director of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, noting that the Department of Economic Security explicitly allows handicapped, elderly, and homeless persons to buy fast food and not just foodstuffs from grocery stores.

Few would argue disagree that the question of the appropriate use of SNAP benefits comes down to how to provide the greatest net benefit to both society as a whole and the subpopulation of those with the greatest economic need.

Considering that this issue appertains not just to nutrition, but also economics, public health, and self-determination, how best to serve those ends may be open to debate. And yet with the issue splitting cleanly down party lines, it seems lawmakers are more interested in the politics than in having that honest debate.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:


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