Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

SNAP's Contribution to Obesity

By Ossy OnumonuPublished May 1, 2013

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Given current rising healthcare costs and the obesity epidemic, American policymakers are searching for solutions to combat these two phenomena. Many are looking to the government-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a means to tackle these pressing issues.
Given current rising healthcare costs and the obesity epidemic, American policymakers are searching for solutions to combat these two phenomena.  Many are looking to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a program that, with amendment, can help tackle these issues.  There is ample public support to limit the types of foods that SNAP beneficiaries are able to purchase with their benefits.  Charles Lane, a Washington Post editorial writer who specializes in economic policy, has studied immensely the behaviors of SNAP recipients and has found that these people tend to buy unhealthy junk food with their benefits.  A few examples of common foods these people buy are: Cheeto Puffs, a one-ounce handful of which contains 10 grams of fat; a box containing two dozen 12-ounce cans of Fanta Orange, each of which contains 44 grams of sugar; and a carton of six-ounce Capri Sun drink pouches, each of which contains 16 grams of sugar.  These purchases only serve to exacerbate America’s obesity problem.   SNAP Recipients also tend to be low-income groups who do not have health insurance, which means that they often lack preventative care.  This causes them to go straight to the emergency room whenever they get sick, which is a big contributor to rising healthcare costs. 

There are currently no bans on the types of foods that SNAP recipients are able to purchase with their benefits.  Federal law “defines eligible food as any food or food product for home consumption” and excludes only “alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot food and any food sold for on premises consumption,” as well as “pet foods, soaps, paper products, medicines and vitamins, household supplies, grooming items, and cosmetics.”    Junk foods that are high in calories and sugar are not included in this list.  Many institutions, including the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, have proposed limiting SNAP purchases to foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.  But the single most important aspect of junk food that most of these advocates ignore is that junk food is simply more affordable than healthy food.  The average SNAP beneficiary receives $134 dollars per month, which equates to $4.50 per day.  These benefits are barely enough to support an appetite with cheap, unhealthy food, let alone healthy food.  If policymakers are serious about limiting the food that SNAP beneficiaries are able to purchase with their benefits, they need to raise the benefits that SNAP beneficiaries receive.   This could possibly be achieved through an income tax increase or through a diversion of funds from another program to SNAP. Although, these are both very contentious solutions that are bound to not have bipartisan support, I believe that a diversion of funds from other program to SNAP is the best option.  Perhaps we could respond to the waning attendance of national parks in this country by diverting some of these funds to the SNAP program.  Once the SNAP program has more funds, we could then encourage these beneficiaries to purchase healthy foods through advertisements.