While Congress is fussing over the farm bill, Michele Simon’s new report, Food Stamps: Follow the Money, identifies the businesses that most stand to gain from the $72 billion spent last year on SNAP.  This program, formerly known as food stamps, gave 46 million Americans an average of  $134 per month to spend on food in late 2011.

Just as health and anti-obesity advocates are working to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy by getting the farm bill to promote production of healthier foods, they also are looking at ways to encourage SNAP recipients to make healthier food choices.  At present, SNAP recipients have few restrictions on what they can buy with their benefit cards.

In contrast, participants in the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which is not a farm bill program, can only use their benefits to buy foods of high nutritional value.  The idea of requiring SNAP recipients to do the same has split the advocacy community.

Anti-hunger advocates fear that any move to restrict benefits to healthier foods, or even to evaluate the current food choices of SNAP recipients, will make the program vulnerable to attacks and budget cuts.  They strongly oppose such suggestions.


Follow the Money explains some of the politics behind efforts to maintain the status quo:

Food industry groups such as the American Beverage Association and the Snack Food Association teamed up with anti-hunger groups to oppose health-oriented improvements to SNAP.

Companies such as Cargill, PepsiCo, and Kroger lobbied Congress on SNAP, while also donating money to America’s top anti- hunger organizations.

At least 9 states have proposed bills  to make health-oriented improvements to SNAP, but  none have passed, in part  due to opposition from the food industry.

Coca-Cola, the Corn Refiners of America, and Kraft Foods  all lobbied against a Florida bill that aimed  to disallow SNAP purchases for soda and junk food.

Nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars in one year.

Walmart received about half of the billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma over a 2-year period.

J.P. Morgan Chase holds contracts in 24 states to administer SNAP benefits.

Banks and other private contractors are reaping significant windfalls from the economic downturn and increasing SNAP participation.

The point here is that banks that administer SNAP have a vested interest in keeping SNAP enrollments high and makers of junk foods have a vested interest in making sure that there are no restrictions on use of benefits.

Another point: data on use of SNAP benefits exist but are either proprietary or not made available.

The report concludes with these recommendations:

– Congress should maintain SNAP funding in this time of need for millions of Americans;

– Congress should require collection and disclosure of SNAP product purchase data, retailer redemptions, and national data on bank fees;

– USDA should evaluate state EBT contracts to determine if banks are taking undue advantage of taxpayer funds.

I’ve not seen this kind of analysis before and this report deserves attention.  At the very least I hope that it will encourage Congress to make sure that the poor get their fair share of SNAP benefits.

This article was originally published in Food Politics on June 13, 2012.

  • pawpaw

    Our Abingdon Farmers Market (SW VA) has about 40 vendor spaces, with some for craft vendors. We sold over $12,000 in SNAP benefits last year, which included a doubling of SNAP through Wholesome Wave. And now ahead of that pace.
    See http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2012/06/07/farmers-market-stamps
    Result: SNAP recipients can double their buying power at our market, and they can choose from a wide variety of local, whole foods.
    Takes planning and management to accept EBT at farmer’s markets, but is a way to bypass the processed food industry.

  • Marge Mullen

    The SNAP program is full of abuse…cigarettes and drugs are just part of it.

  • Alicia

    Oh good grief. Marion Nestle parroting Michele Simon in yet another cookie cutter agenda driven foodie freakout. This time Simple Simon says follow the money (but ignore those needy SNAP recipients and bash industry instead). We are so weary of hearing the same old hate-mongering blather from these two old hens. Such a waste of time.

  • Kim Miller

    SNAP recipients need to have the same guidelines that the National School Lunch Program adheres to. In order to get a handle on the child obesity issues, it needs to start at home.

  • Vene

    Marge, do you have non-anecdotal evidence SNAP is filled with abuse. And by non-anecdotal, I mean something more than ‘I know a guy who…’

  • Michael Bulger

    According to the USDA, the SNAP program is experiencing record low levels of fraud. The latest estimate puts the fraud rate at less than 1%. If every federal program controlled fraud as successfully as the SNAP program does, than this government would find itself with a lot more money.

  • Heather

    Thanks Marion! This info supports the hypothesis presented by the Thrive Movement that Big Banking stands behind Big Agriculture, which stands behind government — and that we peons are just here to buy products that put money in bank coffers. Nobody in their right mind can conscienciously argue that anybody, given access to other food, needs soda pop or candy bars to survive. Selling us junk is just another way to keep Americans sick so that we’ll then need to give our money to Big Pharma…

  • Peter S.

    46 million Americans (American families, actually) are being fed by SNAP benefits. It is a sad commentary on the state of our economy and society that so many are so needy.
    One might consider that particular social inequity an issue rising to the status of a “problem” but, no, the real problem (according to Ivory Tower professor Nestle) is these thrifty SNAP recipients are shopping at WalMart. Well, of course that is unacceptable. We all know these people should be buying overpriced fashion foods from the trendiest bodegas because that food, and only that food is judged “healthy” by Nestle.
    All this bitter criticism of “big business” in our food sector from Nestle who, oddly enough lives comfortably in her bubble and draws her lucrative paycheck from…wait for it…another “big business” within a massive evil industry that is saddling future generations with excessive school loan debt…for an NYU “education” in nutrition and public health short on objective fact and real science but long on biased opinion and pop science. The term hypocrisy instantly leaps to mind. But Nestle certainly spins her own biased opinion about that, as well.

  • Pierce

    This is a sweet irony. Marion Nestle and Michele Simon collaborate to scam us with yet another world-class jerking around as they stretch and spin to implicate professional food producers in some imagined conspiracy to defraud the SNAP program. If the American consumer is being unduly influenced and defrauded it is by the foodie special interests and their paid mouthpieces in the persons of Nestle and Simon.

  • Jonie

    MUCH thanks to Ms Simon and Ms Nestle for shining the light on how the junk food industry has once again muscled in on taxpayer dollars — and leaving us all with huge health costs to boot!

  • Jon

    Simon (and Nestle) get to the Truth once again — one way you can tell is when the naysayers resort to personal attacks — because they Got Nothing.

  • Meg

    I was told when I applied, by an employee at my state’s SNAP program, that a significant population of SNAP benefits are homeless. How can you eat healthy foods without access to a kitchen? The calories available keep them alive, whereas the ability to buy prepared sandwiches, rotisserie chicken, and other store-prepared products could keep them healthy. Should we pretend like this program is designed to stop people from starving, or continue to restrict the system in ways that hurt the most vulnerable population?

  • NYU learns us good

    Meg, if these homeless SNAP recipients are not shopping at Walmart or some other tacky discount store, well, maybe it would be OK. We simply cannot condone thrifty low-class commerce when there are so many truly delightful high-end bodegas trading in wonderfully overpriced esteem-building treats. We think SNAP should do more than nourish the body — it should feed the ego, don’t you agree?

  • Schmickledilly

    If the government were to improve the stipulated uses for food stamps, the industry groups would continue to find constructive uses for their ‘humanity-care’ donations. The face value of that constructive use is far too tasty for them.

  • debra

    So if they do try to tell people how to shop for healty foods ,are they going to raise the amout of food stamps people get .So we can afford to buy the heathly food? Also what about people who don’t get food stamps ? Are they going to be told what foods they buy at stores? Fresh veggies and fruit are not cheep unless there on sale.People can still buy soda pop and junk food with cash too that get food stamps.But I can see it’s important to eat healthy but we don’t need someone telling us what we can and can’t eat. So who’s going to deside what foods we can or can not buy?

  • Jackie

    Some of these arguments look like sock puppet propaganda campaigns. Ad hominum attacks, straw man arguments….

  • Nick

    If we the taxpayers are providing the benefits we should have the option to dictate what kinds of foods the recipients get to eat. If you are looking for a handout you shouldn’t expect choices. A lot of people on SNAP are not destitute, just working poor. In my part of Florida, what I typically see is a young mother working a low wage job, living in government or section 8 housing. If they want potato chips and coke they can use their own money to buy those, but as a state who is likely also providing their healthcare we have a vested interest in not providing them with junk food.

  • Dani

    How is it that food “manufacturers” are even allowed to sell their poisons for human consumption in the first place?
    Instead of criticizing SNAP beneficiaries for making poor choices, or instead of trying to educate them or instead of trying to control them, why not make poisons illegal or post warning labels on them.
    It is insanity, if you think about it, to allow such things as aspartame (a neurotoxin) to be marketed as something to be taken internally. That is just one example.
    Junk food is not food.
    Access to cooking facilities and having time and equipment to cook real food is a huge problem for homeless and working poor, particularly single mothers.
    I am a single mother of three children, never been on any public assistance, I am neither rich nor poor, and I struggle to find the time to cook real food for my family. I know what is healthy and what is not, but the fact remains that preparing healthy food takes time and cooking facilities, as well as money. I can spend every single evening, the majority of my time from getting home from work, cooking and cleaning up. That’s about all I do. On the weekends I do errands and chores and cook. Fast or junk food would sure be quicker, as well as cheaper in some respects (I have enough floating funds to buy all of the ingredients I need to make food from scratch, and I have the facilities to prepare and store them). But I know that my family’s health is very important and tied into what we eat. We don’t want to be sick, and we cannot afford to be sick, anyway.
    I say that because I believe time is a significant factor in people’s health, as far as nutrition goes. Not a small factor. A huge factor.
    I’m in favor of SNAP benefits for poor people, to help them keep their families healthier. Not just alive, but thriving.