Missouri Reps Might Ban Steak and Seafood for Food Stamp Recipients

April 7th 2015

Last week, the Washington Post published an essay describing first-hand the stigmatization suffered by those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or "food stamps." The article, "The poor are treated like criminals everywhere, even at the grocery store," explains yet another example of how we criminalize those who need government assistance.

"Want to see a look of pure hatred?" writer Jeanine Grant Lister begins. "Pull out an EBT card at the grocery store."

Now, the state legislature in Missouri is mulling over potential restrictions for what low-income families can purchase with SNAP benefits. A proposed bill would ban purchases of cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak using food stamps.

"The intention of the bill is to get the food stamp program back to its original intent, which is nutrition assistance," said Rep. Rick Brattin, who proposed the bill in Missouri. (Maine's governor Paul LePage is also considering similar SNAP restrictions as an addition to a bill aimed at promoting healthier habits for all Maine residents.)

These types of proposals are rooted in mixed intentions -- on the one hand, wanting to reduce obesity, government spending, and SNAP fraud -- but the bills' courses of action are misguided. (They also might not fit within federal regulations.)

The benefits of SNAP.

Limiting what a family can purchase due to their low income is not just another way of criminalizing the poor. It also demonstrates a lack of understanding about SNAP and those who need food stamp benefits to feed their families.

The 46.5 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits get on average only $133 per month for groceries, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is around $33 per week. These dollars, which are allocated by individual states, cannot be spent on alcohol, fast food, or deli-prepared food. This amount of money (as I learned) is hardly enough to feed yourself for a week -- and often falls short, as Lister points out. With this meager allotment, which was the target of cuts in 2013 and was again the subject of a proposed slash in the 2015 Republican congressional budget proposal, it is nearly impossible to purchase a lobster or fancy cut of steak.

Fraud in the system?

Politicians' handwringing about fraud in the program -- or instances of SNAP abuse -- is misplaced. According to 2013 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP has one of the smallest fraud rates of any Federal program. Rates of trafficking -- or exchanging SNAP dollars for money or other items -- has decreased from "four percent down to about one percent of benefits over the last 15 years," according to the USDA.

Matthew Yglesias at Vox even argues that Missouri's proposal could lead to more fraud in the program (and more cynically, politicians could then point out more cases of abuse):

After all, suppose you're a poor SNAP-eligible mom who really wants to get some cookies to make her kids happy. Today, you handle that by going to the grocery store to buy some cookies. When we ban the use of SNAP benefits for cookie purchases, she's likely going to find herself in the parking lot trying to find someone who'll trade her some cookies for a few gallons of milk (or whatever).

Promoting healthy habits.

In terms of promoting healthy eating, an article from Slate postulates that poor health in low-income families may not just be a product of an unhealthy diet but also of the stress of poverty as a whole:

"That’s not to say that poor people don’t make decisions about diet and exercise, but in general they are preoccupied with very different choices than wealthier people are: Should I pay my electricity or my water bill? Can I pay my rent and buy my kid a pair of school shoes? The immediacy of these pressures may make it more difficult to think about how eating choices today will affect health 10 or 20 years from now."

A recent Gallup poll and several studies have looked into what may be causing high obesity rates in impoverished families, It also examined the effect of low income and food deserts (areas where there is no ready access to fresh foods). From Gallup:

"These studies and Gallup's new analysis reveal that a focus on increasing access to places to buy healthy food alone may not be an answer to help improve how people in 'food deserts' eat, nor a way to positively impact their health and weight. The data highlight that addressing food affordability -- and possibly even increasing knowledge about what constitutes healthy foods -- is more likely the answer to decreasing obesity in America's food deserts."

 The USDA's Economic Research Service "estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts. More than half of those people (13.5 million) are low-income." 

Better solutions.

Though food deserts are just one part of the puzzle (and possibly not the most important part), many advocates including the First Lady are looking for solutions that both spur healthier purchases and also introduce fresh produce to low-income families.

Many states allow EBT (or electronic benefit transfer cards) to be spent at farmers markets, and some states like New York incentivize the spending of EBT at farmers markets by giving benefit dollars back for dollars spent at farmers markets. An added plus of encouraging spending at local farmers markets is the funneling of taxpayer dollars into the local economy. 

Rhode Island provides an excellent model for getting healthier foods to SNAP recipients. On April 1, the Rhode Island Public Health Institute was awarded a $100,000 grant to "bring a mobile fresh fruit and vegetable market into low-income or underserved neighborhoods," according to the Providence Journal. This grant award would also allow SNAP recipients to get a dollar back for every dollar spent at one of these mobile markets.

The best solution, however, is to stop cutting SNAP, and most importantly increase incomes for families who utilize SNAP. Raising the minimum wage, according the the Center for American Progress, should lift families out of poverty and eventually off of SNAP benefits.

Those who utilize SNAP benefits are already limited by the amount of money they have to purchase food and are often limited by access to healthy foods. Proposed bills like the one introduced in Missouri only limits what food is available to low-income families. Or as Lister explains: "We’re barely getting by. Don’t tell us what to buy at the grocery store."

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