Tennessee Lawmaker Wants To Block Low-Income Americans From Buying Junk Food

Not everyone can afford this. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Not everyone can afford this. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) proposed a bill on Tuesday that would amend the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that low-income Americans can’t use it to buy unhealthy food, despite his previous opposition to public health initiatives under Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. The GOP lawmaker says that the stricter standards will prevent the government from from funding unhealthy purchases like sugary drinks.

Under Roe’s proposed legislation, low-income people on SNAP would have to adhere to the guidelines that another government assistance program — the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program — already requires. In order to be eligible for WIC coverage, food purchases must meet detailed standards. For example, breakfast cereal must be primarily whole grain, contain certain levels of iron, and contain less than 21.2 grams of sugar. Bread must be whole wheat. Canned soups or baked beans with meat are not allowed.

“As a physician, I realize the importance of healthy eating, and as an obstetrician, I’ve seen how the WIC program helps empower families receiving assistance to use taxpayer dollars to purchase healthy, wholesome foods,” Roe said in a statement about his new bill. “By giving SNAP recipients more nutritious choices, we can take a meaningful step towards ending hunger in America.”

But this type of initiative doesn’t actually give low-income people more healthy choices; it actually takes choices away. Instead of empowering SNAP recipients to choose healthy options, it forbids them from making unhealthier ones. And that’s an important distinction because unhealthier, processed food products tend to be cheaper per calorie than higher-quality, fresh food.

When struggling Americans try to make their SNAP benefits stretch — even though the assistance program is intended to be supplemental, it typically provides low-income families’ entire monthly food budgets — they can typically make them stretch farther when they opt for lower quality groceries. Furthermore, many low-income people live in what’s known as “food deserts,” or areas where there’s very limited access to well-stocked grocery stores or fresh produce. The average food stamp recipient lives about 1.8 miles away from the closest grocery store, and may have limited transportation options. For those people, it’s easier to shop at local corner stores and bodegas that may not have a wide range of healthy products.

Anti-hunger advocates oppose legislation like Roe’s specifically for those reasons. Instead, they say that a much more effective policy would be to help address some of the structural issues at the root of health disparities, like making healthier food more affordable.

For instance, the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which was first launched in 2011, gives SNAP recipients a discount on healthier options — for every dollar they spend on healthy food, they earn 30 cents back to spend on other SNAP-eligible items. That pilot program has proven to be extremely successful. The federal government recently reported that it encouraged the participants to buy 25 percent more vegetables with their food stamps. Seventy percent of households said that healthy food was more affordable under the system, and a staggering 95 percent said they wanted to continue the program.

Despite his current focus on controlling how low-income Americans grocery shop, Roe hasn’t been such a champion for public health initiatives that apply to everyone across the economic spectrum. When the USDA recently overhauled school lunch standards to encourage kids to eat healthier cafeteria food, Roe was one of several Republicans who claimed it represented an “overreach of government” that forced students to go hungry. Thanks to the outcry, the USDA ended up being forced to loosen the standards.