Report Asks For Disclosure Of Food Stamp Purchases

Connie K. Ho for

Chips. Soda. Candy. These are a just a few examples of cheap food that is readily available for consumers at a low price. A recent report by California watchdog group Eat Drink Politics challenges the federal government to release information regarding the amount of unhealthy food and sugary soda that is paid for with food stamps; they believe that disclosure of this information is necessary in understanding the obesity epidemic.

The timing of the publication of the report coincides with a health epidemic that the U.S. is facing in trying to rein in costs of diet-related illnesses. According to Reuters Health, more than one-third of adults in the U.S. and one-fifth of U.S. children are obese. To combat these issues, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed banning the sales of oversized sugary drinks at various locations including at mobile food carts, movie theaters, and restaurants. McDonalds and Coca Cola Co. have protested against the proposals and critics have claimed that it would make New York into a nanny state. As well, the challenge by Eat Drink Politics highlights how the federal nutrition-assistance program, used by around one in every seven Americans, should support healthier eating habits along with fighting hunger.

“The federal government should not be fueling America’s epidemic of diet-related chronic disease with taxpayer money,” remarked Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics, in the Reuters Health article.

The report, titled “Food Stamps: Follow the Money,” specifically asks that there be disclosure regarding the redemptions paid to individual companies, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., as well as banks that have contracts to process the electronic benefits, such as JP Morgan Chase. The paper discusses how high unemployment and a slow economic recovery have increased participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. In 2011, spending for the program was $71.8 billion; this is an increase from 2007, where the program spent $30.4 billion.

“SNAP’s tagline is ‘putting healthy food within reach.’ Without data on how much money is being spent on Coke versus orange juice, or Lucky Charms versus oatmeal, how will we ever evaluate the nutrition goals of the program?” commented Simon in the Reuters Health article.

In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who administers the food stamps program, stated that capturing food data at checkout stands with the program processing system was not cost effective. However, other national data sources are thought to be given an accurate depiction of the consumption of SNAP participants. As well, the department did mention that it has a number of projects in development to capture information on food purchases.

“We are preparing to launch a new feasibility study to see if today’s system environment makes this approach more feasible,” Bruce Alexander, the spokesman for the USDA, told Reuters Health.

Anti-hunger organizations and groups that represent food industry retailers, food, beverage companies, and fast-food chains caution against decreasing food options and believe that the restrictions proposed will increase stigmatization of food stamp users. They believe that accessing data on SNAP food purchase is difficult and expensive, as different companies categorize products differently.

“Our focus should be on protecting SNAP from harmful cuts and structural changes and strengthening participation, not adding additional complications to the program,” noted Maura Daly, a spokeswoman for hunger-relief charity Feeding America, in the Reuters Health article.

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