The idea that US food stamp recipients buy more junk food than other Americans is a myth

The realities of food stamps.
The realities of food stamps.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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It’s time to scrap the notion that people who use US government food assistance programs are particularly prone to making unhealthy purchases at the supermarket. The reality is that most Americans consistently use their grocery money to buy unhealthy items, and food stamp beneficiaries are no different in this regard.

Here’s how American grocery shoppers spent their food budgets over the course of a full year, according to a US government study (pdf) of expenditures in the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The data comes from an unnamed leading US grocery retailer, which sent data to the government every month in 2011. Each monthly file contained an average of more than 1 billion records of food item purchases made by 26.5 million US households, 3.2 million of which used food stamps.

Less healthy items like soda were among the top purchases by households whether they participated in the food-stamp program or not. A breakdown of expenditures for more specific purchases by SNAP and non-SNAP households show habits are similar, though priorities within categories are somewhat different.

Studies have shown low-income families do eat fewer fruits and vegetables than those household with larger incomes, though blaming that on food stamps misses the nuance of the safety net program policy, including how much (or how little) money is allotted to families using the service.

Many characterizations have portrayed beneficiaries as a needy population that spends an outsized portion of their benefits on unhealthy food, compared with people that don’t use food stamps. The Daily Caller, a right-wing news site, has published pieces blaming SNAP, in part, for America’s obesity crisis. In Wisconsin, state lawmakers in 2015 wanted to pass a law restricting the items people on SNAP could purchase.

As the administration of US president-elect Donald Trump begins to establish itself in Washington, lobbyists and health advocates who work in agriculture and food policy circles say they expect the federal food stamps program to receive more scrutiny—though very little of that conversation is expected to be about the nutrition component of the policy. The Republican party’s 2016 platform (pdf) includes a provision that would subject the nearly 45 million US food stamp recipients to work requirements in order to receive the benefit, something that’s been touted by The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank.

That policy proposal remains a controversial one, as many health advocates see such requirements as adding burdens to already vulnerable families who—working or not—still have to eat. And based on their grocery bills, what they’re eating doesn’t look much different than the average American diet.