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Food stamp debate divides health, hunger advocates

Charmaine Williams, 42, stocks shelves at the NorthPoint Food Shelf in Minneapolis. Williams is a volunteer at the food shelf. She receives food stamps, and is opposed to restrictions that would prevent recipients from spending their benefits on soda or junk food. Julie Siple|MPR Photo

By Julie Siple

MPR News 91.3 FM

ST. PAUL – Should food stamp recipients be allowed to use their benefits to purchase soda and junk food?

Currently, it’s legal to buy soft drinks, chips, and cookies using food stamps, as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But increasingly, public health experts concerned about obesity are raising questions about that policy, pitting them against longtime allies in the hunger prevention community.

One of those experts is Mary Story, senior associate dean of academic and student affairs for the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. Story said hunger, or food insecurity as it is sometimes known, is a serious problem in the United States, and food stamps provide a lifeline for hungry people.

“At the same time, obesity has also become a major epidemic and it was not at all in the mid-1960s when food stamps came about,” Story said.

Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity disproportionately affects low-income children.

“When you have obesity and food insecurity co-existing at the same time, I think it’s really time to modernize the program and really look at what could be done to really have healthier foods,” Story said.

When it comes to food stamp restrictions, Story suggests starting with sugar-sweetened beverages. She wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow cities or states to test the concept. But the USDA turned down New York’s request last year to ban food stamp purchases of sugary drinks.

In 2004, the state of Minnesota wanted to go farther. But the USDA denied the state’s plan to prevent food stamp recipients from buying not just soda, but also candy.

Banning junk food is what the director of the University of Minnesota’s Obesity Prevention Center wants to see. Simone French said the government should not fund the purchase of empty-calorie foods.

“Like candy and cookies, Ho-Hos and processed snack foods, Doritos. Those we don’t really need,” French said. “They don’t really provide much nutrition and they provide a lot of calories and fat.”

French and Story are strong supporters of the food stamp program, but by considering restrictions, they are aligning themselves against the hunger prevention community.


Colleen Moriarty, executive director of the Hunger Solutions Minnesota advocacy group, worries that restrictions could add even more stigma to the food stamp program at a time when the economic downturn has left many in need. More than 500,000 Minnesotans receive food stamps.

“If you start putting even more rules on this program... what I’m maintaining is, you are convincing people that they don’t want to be on the program,” Moriarty said. “There’s many more benefits for them being on the program than there are detriments for them having a sugar-sweetened beverage.”

Restrictions aren’t necessary, she said.

“We have little if any evidence that people aren’t making good choices,” Moriarty said. “So we’re kind of attacking a problem that we don’t think exists.”

There is little information available about food stamp purchases. The USDA said it does not collect data from retailers, although the department has begun a study into whether and how to collect that information. The study won’t be finished until 2014.

But a 2008 USDA study found food stamp recipients did consume a higher percentage of calories from fats, alcoholic beverages and added sugars than people not on food stamps. The difference in percentages was small, however. The Diet Quality of Americans by Food Stamp Participation Status shows that food stamp participants consumed 41 percent of their calories in solid fats, alcoholic beverages and added sugars. Higher-income non-participants consumed 38 percent.

The Minnesota Grocers Association is also concerned about food stamp restrictions. President Jamie Pfuhl said it would be a monumental task to keep track of what is considered healthy.

“There are about 20,000 products being introduced annually and so we would have to determine with each one where they fall in that category,” Pfuhl said. “Some of our small grocers may not be able to keep up with that and may actually lose the ability to participate, which would be incredibly detrimental to Minnesotans.”

One food stamp recipient, Dennis Boe, of Minneapolis, favors limiting how food stamps are used.

“Food stamps are, I feel, a gift from the government,” Boe said. “You should not be able to buy sodas. You should not be able to buy cookies. You should not be able to buy potato chips, candy.”

But Charmaine Williams, a single mother and grandmother in Minneapolis, thinks she should be able to buy her family snacks every once in a while.

“I don’t have extra money to buy things like that, because all my cash goes for my light bill, my gas bill, things I need to survive. That’s what that money goes for,” Williams said. “Food stamps do help with food for my household. And a little snack won’t hurt now and then.”

Public health and hunger prevention advocates agree that it would take more than food stamp restrictions to beat obesity.