The first time a state government tried to bar food stamps recipients from buying certain types of food it deemed “junk,” the War on Terror hadn’t yet reached Iraq and Facebook hadn’t been invented yet. More than a dozen years later, so-called “junk food bans” remain en vogue with conservative lawmakers who have not heeded the lessons of that first failed attempt.
At the outset of 2003, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) kicked off his first term by proposing “the next generation” of welfare reform in Minnesota. Amid a laundry list of other changes, Pawlenty wanted to ban Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from buying junk food. States cannot take such a step unless they are granted a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and no state had ever applied for one for the purpose Pawlenty had ginned up.
Legislators and agency heads deliberated for a year on how to define “junk food” before opting to base the rule on Minnesota’s sales tax law, which taxes certain foodstuffs deemed unhealthy while exempting the rest. The delineation is messy and contradictory, as the Associated Press detailed in 2003. “The state, for example, taxes Hershey’s bars but not Kit Kat bars — because anything made with flour isn’t considered a candy. It taxes coffee drinks that are sweetened but not those that contain milk. It taxes gum but not licorice. It taxes marshmallows but not ice cream bars.”
Despite these foibles, Pawlenty’s idea has enjoyed significant popularity elsewhere in the years since. Maine lawmakers debated banning soda from being bought with SNAP in 2009, though the legislation went nowhere. In 2010, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I) requested a similar waiver for New York City, and was denied. Junk food bans passed a committee vote in Texas in 2011 but died on the floor. Iowa and California lawmakers introduced similar rules that year. Bans were introduced in eight separate states in 2012, with Florida defeating a proposal that had cleared the committee stage and Mississippi deciding at the last minute to revoke its waiver request. Maine, Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina, and Delaware all toyed with the idea in 2013 and 2014.
The list of foods affected by Wisconsin’s new bill borrows some of the odd hypocrisy that marked Pawlenty’s inaugural attempt over a decade ago. Sharp cheese would be restricted, but plain cheddar would not. White potatoes escape the proposal untouched, but russet potatoes would be harder to get.
The law would also make it harder to buy spaghetti sauces and spices to flavor recipes, a constraint seemingly at odds with conservative rhetoric about what’s wrong with public assistance programs.
“We hear an awful lot in the post-welfare reform era about moving people to self-sufficiency,” Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) legal director Ellen Vollinger told ThinkProgress. “Telling adults they can’t make the same choices within the grocery store that others make, and then prepare the meals they want with the ingredients they want, doesn’t seem at all consistent with the argument that these changes move people to self-sufficiency. I always thought that was a little strange.”
The USDA ultimately rejected Pawlenty’s request for a junk food ban in 2004. Officials noted the contradictory treatment of different brands of candy bars and warned of “confusion and embarrassment” at checkout counters. They worried that making retailers responsible for policing shopping carts would upset what Vollinger called “the wise decision to use the regular rails of commerce [for food assistance] as opposed to the government setting up its own food warehouses for low-income people.”
But most of all, the administrators argued that even a perfectly-designed ban would fix a non-existent problem. “[I]mplementation of this waiver would perpetuate the myth that participants do not make wise food purchasing decisions,” the rejection letter said, when “research has shown [they] are smart shoppers” whose nutrition intake varies little from that of higher-income people.
In 2015, the poor are still smart shoppers. The USDA published research in early May comparing the food consumption patterns of SNAP recipients to both wealthier people and low-income families not receiving SNAP. The findings undermine the common conservative notion that the poor splurge on luxuries and empty calories.
Just 3 percent of SNAP recipients eat shellfish — banned outright from SNAP spending in the Wisconsin measure — compared to 4.4 percent of non-SNAP families poor enough to be eligible for the program and 3.9 percent of higher-income families. The participating families were roughly as likely to consume proteins as the non-participating families, while relying much more heavily on chicken, pork, bacon, eggs, and beans. About 74 percent of SNAP families consume sweets and desserts, compared to about 80 percent of wealthier families. These differences often play out amid stark and persistent contrasts between how the store shelves are stocked in low-income neighborhoods and affluent ones.
Both conservative proponents of the bans and the public health advocates who back them often focus on soda consumption. The USDA did find that food stamps recipients are more prone to soda-drinking than others — 55.8 percent of SNAP recipients surveyed had consumed soda in the past day, compared to 50.3 percent of the overall population — but those overall numbers do not account for demographic differences. When the data is adjusted for factors like ethnicity, gender, household composition, and education level, the differences in soda consumption melt away. The USDA has previously concluded that “SNAP participants are no more likely to consume [sugar-sweetened beverages] than lower income nonparticipants” in the same demographic group. And the rate of soda consumption among poor families wouldn’t necessarily change if lawmakers create an extra humiliation at the cash register when a poor family wants root beer.
“It isn’t the case that SNAP clients are less interested in good nutrition than anybody else,” Vollinger said. “They’re very interested in it. They just can’t afford it.”
The USDA strongly prefers to help SNAP users afford healthier food rather than punish them for failing to do so. When the agency rejected Bloomberg’s 2011 request for a waiver to ban soda, Secretary Tom Vilsack invoked the USDA’s “longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions that are better-suited for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals” who rely on SNAP. It was the second time the agency had rebuffed the junk food ban idea. If either Wisconsin or Maine ultimately file for a waiver, it will be just the fourth time the USDA has gotten such a request.
At the same time that it rejects nanny-state ideas about food stamp diets, the USDA makes various efforts to help food stamps recipients eat healthier. A years-old program called SNAP-Ed funds classroom education for SNAP recipients on nutrition and shopping tricks, though federal funding cuts in recent years have seriously curtailed its budget.
The agency’s more recent attempts to incentivize healthy shopping and eating in SNAP are more aggressive than education. Food stamps recipients can swipe their EBT cards at farmers’ markets and get twice as much to spend in market-only voucher tokens, thanks to a $100 million program tucked into the 2014 Farm Bill. (Mississippi rescinded its request for a junk food ban waiver because it decided “to focus on improving SNAP participants’ access to farmers’ markets” instead, a USDA official told ThinkProgress.)
The farmers market policy grew out of a narrowly-targeted pilot program in the mid-2000s, and the USDA has funded other incentive-based pilot programs aimed at promoting nutrition on a SNAP budget. One such program in Massachusetts credited 30 cents back to a SNAP recipient’s EBT card for every dollar they spent on a targeted list of fruits and vegetables. After about two years, the pilot program had demonstrated a significant jump in the intake of fruits and vegetables among participating families as compared to those who were left out.
“Incentives help, but the biggest incentive these families are facing is that they don’t have a big enough food budget,” said Vollinger. FRAC supports the USDA’s attempts to create positive, carefully tailored nutrition incentives, she said, “but sometimes people forget that really it’s the base benefit amount. If we could get that improved, a lot of this would take care of itself.”