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SNAP, WIC, and Junk Food

It’s a perennial argument. How come we keep letting people in SNAP use it to buy junk food? And every time the answer that comes back is pragmatic. It would be an expensive, bureaucratic nightmare to police junk food in SNAP. But the argument just won’t stop. A new study and new policy proposals promise to keep it alive.

Could It Help to Limit Junk Food?

A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) provides ammunition for people who favor limiting junk food. Shu Wen Ng and colleagues looked at the impact of the WIC program on the quality of nutrition for families who participate. They found that raising nutrition standards in the program back in 2009 led to meaningful improvements in nutrition for the whole family.

After WIC nutrition standards went up, WIC households bought food with fewer calories, less sugar, less salt, and less fat,. They bought more fruits and vegetables.

So yes, it’s possible that limiting the purchases of junk food in SNAP might nudge households in the program toward better nutrition. But SNAP is a much bigger, broader program than WIC. So, the pragmatic issues for SNAP are anything but trivial.

The Pragmatic Policy Debate

That’s why this new data doesn’t change the policy debate that has simmered for years about junk food in SNAP. Despite passionate arguments from politicians, the USDA consistently resists calls to ban the purchase of junk food with money from the program. Just last week, the agency again turned down a request from Maine for just such a ban. They said it would be too expensive to administer and impossible to come up with an objective definition of junk food. They also cited the lack of evidence for any impact on health outcomes.

This is a tricky debate. In a 2017 paper for a special issue of AJPM, Marlene Schwartz of the Rudd Center provided a thorough review. This is a debate that defies traditional liberal/conservative and Republican/Democrat splits. It often pits anti-poverty activists against public health nutrition activists.

Right now, sugar-sweetened soft drinks are some of the most frequent items purchased with SNAP dollars. Excluding them, along with other high-calorie, low-nutrition foods might well lead to better nutrition in SNAP households. The impact on health, though, is  a matter of conjecture.

That leaves plenty of room for political debate. Watch this space.

Click here for the study by Ng et al and here for more on the debate about junk food in SNAP.

Vegan Junk Food, Black Bean Burger & Onion Rings; photograph © Kelly Garbato / flickr

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February 18, 2018

6 Responses to “SNAP, WIC, and Junk Food”

  1. February 18, 2018 at 8:23 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Right!! Policing entitlement programs is a favorite theme of Republicans who otherwise would be inclined to keep the government out of our lives.
    The Libertarians point out that if the government just gave every poor man women and child the money we spend mostly administering these programs, everyone would get $40k a year.

    • February 18, 2018 at 9:11 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, John. If you look around a bit, you’ll find that R’s and D’s don’t line up in perfect order on this issue. Some R’s like free market features of SNAP. Some D’s like having big government tell people what they should eat. It’s messy.

  2. February 18, 2018 at 10:36 am, Tammi Goff said:

    Better nutrition = better health = reduced medical costs. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, not Supplemental Junk Food Assistance Program. I’ve never understood why SNAP can’t/won’t follow the WIC guidelines. And, no, I’m not a Republican. As someone who is affected by obesity, I’m passionate about healthy nutrition. Let’s face it, I didn’t become obese eating salads. It was the availability of, and my choice to eat, junk food.

    • February 18, 2018 at 1:31 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Tammi, for sharing your view. Good nutrition makes good sense.

  3. February 18, 2018 at 12:24 pm, Trisha said:

    “Right now, sugar-sweetened soft drinks are some of the most frequent items purchased with SNAP dollars. Excluding them, along with other high-calorie, low-nutrition foods might well lead to better nutrition in SNAP households. The impact on health, though, is a matter of conjecture.”

    Now wait a minute here – for the past decade plus, Americans have been bombarded with reports, articles, research, from national organizations like the diabetes foundation, Heart Association etc. telling us how bad sugar sweetened food and junk food is for us. Now you’re saying the impact on health is a matter of conjecture? No. If it’s bad for Americans who are not on SNAP or WIC, then it’s bad for those purchasing foods with government dollars. Whats good for the goose – is good for the gander. Grocery store systems have the ability to track everything I purchase – it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to develop an application that is provided to all stores that take SNAP or WIC that lists what food categories are not allowed to be purchased with government money. No pop, no potato chips, no ice cream etc. I have stopped buying most junk food by choice, it’s simply not that difficult to limit what can or cannot be bought.

    • February 18, 2018 at 1:29 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Trisha, for sharing your thoughts. The real world is a little messier than you’re assuming. It’s certainly reasonable to presume that banning junk food might result in better health. But lots of things can happen along the way. People might smoke a little more, drink a little more, or keep buying the junk food with their own money. Sometimes good intentions merely pave the road to a worse place. It happens.