Print This Post

How food stamps can play a role in making America healthier

Posted on 11.20.2013

        We’ve all witnessed this scene in the checkout line at the grocery store: a family dressed in name brand clothing, the parents talking on iPhones, the kids wearing the latest Nikes, and then the mother pulls out her food stamp card to pay the cashier. The illusion is ruined. They are no longer the all-American family previously pictured.

Food stamps are many things to many people. Some people will get a look of contempt at the thought of paying for someone’s food with tax dollars, and some will beam with pride that their government provides such a service. I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum of reactions. I am glad that all 50 states, as well as the U.S. territories, offer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, as a cashier, the things I see frustrate me.

During the first few weeks of every month, staying away from the grocery store is best because food stamp beneficiaries will be SNAPping up all of the food by the multiple cart fulls. And when I say food, I mean all the pop, snack cakes, chips and frozen garbage they can buy.  The other day at work, I checked out a very large man’s order of 10 boxes of doughnut sticks, several cases of Mountain Dew and ribs.

It is great that needy families and the disabled can get help with buying food. But it is not great that the food they buy is unhealthy. With the 47 million Americans who receive SNAP getting only an average benefit of $133 per month they may not be able to afford the healthier options on an allowance that meager.

However, some families get hundreds of dollars. It isn’t all that uncommon to see a two to three carts full order totaling up to $300 or more, all covered by stamps, with some remaining. Then when the register spits out the receipt, the beginning balance clearly shows that the family had more than $500 in food stamps. And some of my favorite food stamp moments are when two people come shopping together and one buys both orders with his or her food stamps. The idea of the program is to ensure that your family is fed, not your freeloader friends. If beneficiaries have so much money that they are giving out free SNAPs to friends, perhaps they have too much and need a reduction.

Oftentimes, the more money that a family gets in food stamps, the more unhealthy food they buy. Instead of buying apples, they buy apple-flavored pop. Some other typical items bought with taxpayer dollars are snack cakes, potato chips, frozen pizza and rib eye steaks. It is disappointing to know that taxpayers are subsidizing sweet tooths and no mechanism exists to ensure that food stamps provide proper nutrition.

The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program is the best model for a food-related social safety net. WIC provides nutritious food for pregnant women, infants and children up to age five who meet financial requirements. The program provides vouchers for specific foods, typically something like baby food, baby cereal or formula for infants. And for older children and mothers, there are vouchers that give specific things such as milk, eggs, whole grain bread, beans or fruits and vegetables. WIC users also are only allowed to get certain brands and certain flavors of the foods that provide optimal nutrition.

Food stamps should have nutrition requirements. It may not be effective to have a voucher system, but I would love to see a system that denies beneficiaries the right to buy pop, chips, snack cakes, and candy. If those vice foods were barred, there would be a much healthier food stamp population.

Healthier food requirements would be an effective way to provide nutrition for beneficiaries and give taxpayers more bang for their buck. If we are going to subsidize food for citizens, why should it allow them to be overweight and make us pay even more for their Medicare and Medicaid bills in the future?

Switching gears to another harsh reality of SNAP, for most families that do get the average benefit of $133 per month, that is not enough to feed a family for an entire month. That is barely enough to feed me, a single college student, for one month, let alone an entire household. According to, 90 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, and 58 percent of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for help at least six months out of the year.

Marion County has the highest percentage of SNAP beneficiaries in the state with more than 180,000, according to data from 2011. Recently, Congress cut back on the temporary increase in food stamps to cushion the blow of the recession. According to The New York Times this cut was the first since food stamps came into being in 1964. The cut affects one in seven Americans and one in eight Marion County residents.

So the next time you see a food stamp beneficiary at the store buying a cart full of junk food, think about the fact that they can buy less food under these cuts. For some, this means less junk food, but more trips to the food pantry. In light of the reduction I hope that the stamps will be used more wisely than before and will help families be more healthy and cashiers less resentful.


RSS Feed  Follow Us on Twitter  Facebook Profile