Restrictions on food stamp purchases considered

Using the carrot, the stick or both to drive healthy food purchases by food stamp recipients is the question being considered by the House Agriculture Committee.

In a Feb. 16 hearing, the committee heard testimony the implications of restricting what can be purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

"A recent USDA study showing the purchasing habits of SNAP recipients has again raised the question of whether certain food or beverage items should be restricted as eligible food items in SNAP," House Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said in his opening statement.

"While there is a case to be made for encouraging recipients to make healthy purchasing decisions, there are also concerns worth noting when it comes to restricting certain food and beverage options."

The leading Democrat on the committee expressed caution about restricting food choices with food stamp benefits.

"Looking specifically at SNAP food choice it would seem pretty straightforward that we not allow SNAP dollars to be spent on junk food," House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said in his statement. However, he said that it is difficult to define junk food.

"Going down this route could open a real can of worms," Peterson said. "Grocery stores have no interest being the food police and USDA has been resistant to that effort as well."

The committee heard from several witness who spoke to possible restrictions.

"I am here today to urge the committee to support demonstration projects that test whether a sweetened beverage restriction in SNAP can improve the health and well-being of SNAP recipients," Angela Rachidi, research fellow of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., said in her statement to the committee.

She said sweetened beverages are one of the main contributors to obesity and other health problems, and that allowing sweetened beverages runs counter to the stated goal of SNAP to support nutrition among low-income households. Rachidi said a demonstration project that restricts sweetened beverage purchases could help determine if such a strategy could support better health.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., said a better strategy than restricting sweetened beverages would be to provide incentives for fruits and vegetables purchases by SNAP recipients.

SNAP restrictions on soft drinks, desserts and other items would create an "administrative nightmare," Leslie Sarasin, CEO, Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., told the committee.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Ithaca, N.Y., suggested SNAP participants could decide for themselves to restrict junk food purchases if they received an incentive.

"One option would be to have 100% of their SNAP benefits to purchase whatever they wanted (foods that are currently eligible)," he told the committee in prepared remarks.

"A second option would be that they could agree to self-restrict themselves from buying certain foods in exchange for, say, 125% of their SNAP benefits," Wansink said in his remarks.