SNAP junk food limits may backfire


It’s nothing new: the debate about whether SNAP (food stamps) money should be used to purchase junk food. The question is more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Yes, America has an obesity crisis and we’re allowing our tax dollars to buy pop and candy. On the other hand, some see it as overbearing to limit what someone puts in their grocery cart, and recognize the slippery slope for defining “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods.

As a SNAP outreach worker who meets with program participants and applicants every day, I see many sides to this issue. I’m not sure where I stand on every aspect of the debate, but I do know that limiting SNAP-eligible groceries would likely lower program participation, and not because people just want to fill their cart with cookies.

One of the main deterrents to SNAP participation among my clients is their fear of using their benefits incorrectly. The rules are currently quite simple: SNAP can be used for all groceries except for hot prepared foods and foods that will be eaten in the store. Other grocery-store staples like hygiene items, toilet paper, vitamins, etc. must be paid for another way.

Even with these clear parameters, people worry. What if they make a mistake and buy an ineligible item? Is it possible to overdraw their account? (It’s not.) If they have a problem, will it turn into an embarrassing scene in the checkout line? These worries pose a real barrier to potential SNAP applicants. Making the program more complicated only raises the worry about accidentally using SNAP incorrectly and getting in trouble. Even if they had no intention to buy a bag of chips alongside their lettuce and milk, people will stay away from the program because it’s confusing, and sometimes life is already complex enough as is.

In my experience, there’s a clear correlation between a program’s complexity and people’s willingness to participate. This isn’t just in the world of income supports; we all experience it every day. When it comes to anti-poverty programs, the results of nonparticipation are very serious. If we make it harder to use SNAP, I worry that we’ll see a real drop in participation among people who are hungry, poor, and afraid to use the help offered to them. Our attempts at “improvement” could ultimately increase hunger and poor health, not reduce them.