But others at the House Agriculture Committee meeting Feb. 16 in Washington, DC, said the restrictions are worth a shot given how sugary beverages offer no nutritional value and contribute to obesity and related chronic diseases.
Committee Chairman K. Michael Conway held the hearing to consider the pros and cons of restricting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in light of a US Department of Agriculture report released last fall that found about 20% of SNAP benefits pay for sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.
“The report, while not the sole basis of this hearing, begs the question of whether certain food or beverage items should be restricted as eligible food items from SNAP,” Conway said in his opening comments at the meeting.
He added: “Our goal is to provide much needed nutrition and to encourage Americans to eat healthier.”
To that end, some public health and social service advocates argue restricting the use of SNAP benefits to buy sugar sweetened beverages could improve the health and well-being of SNAP recipients.
As a nutrition assistance program dedicated to improving the nutrition of low-income households, “SNAP could do more to support healthy eating among recipient households, especially children,” Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies, testified at the hearing.
Rachidi suggests launching a demonstration project to test a sweetened beverage restriction as the foundation of evidence-based policy making.
“It could involve a few states or localities to assess whether the potential gains, such as better health, can be achieved without adverse effects on other measures of well-being,” Rachidi said.
She explained that the demonstration would not be difficult for retailers to implement because the technology currently used to disburse SNAP benefits already codes which items are and are not eligible for coverage.
She also noted that a survey of SNAP participants showed more than half supported the restriction.
An ‘administrative nightmare’
Contrary to what Rachidi argues, the Food Marketing Institute argued at the hearing that limiting what products are eligible under SNAP based on health would be expensive and difficult for USDA to implement and retailers to enforce.
Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI, noted at the hearing that 20,000 new products are introduced to the marketplace annually and USDA would need to hire additional staff to determine each product’s eligibility and then encode it in the electronic payments system.
Not to mention a policy for determining a product’s healthfulness and therefore ability to qualify as eligible would need to be developed, she noted.
The restrictions “also would prove an administrative nightmare, increasing the cost of acceptance and slowing down checkout lines in an industry that historically has experienced only just more than 1% profit margin and in which every second of delay affects profitability and ultimately the number of associates that can be hired and the prices in a store,” she said.
A ban would not reduce consumption
Not only would a ban be difficult to implement, but others argued at the meeting that they likely would not have the intended impact because “the rational for the bans is based on a false understanding of how SNAP benefits work,” Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Hamilton Project and senior fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institution, said at the meeting.
She explained that SNAP benefits are modest, at about $4.50 per person per day, and “as a result nearly all families supplement their SNAP purchases with groceries purchased from their cash income.”
As such, she argues, if soft drink purchases are banned from using SNAP benefits, recipients simply would pay for them out of their other income.
“In other words,” she said, “a ban will likely increase the administrative costs of the program to both the USDA and retailers, and increase the stigma faced by recipients when they use the benefits, but not have the benefit of inducing any behavior changes.”
Rachidi recognized this risk in her testimony, but she still advocated for a pilot program because “it is unclear how SNAP households would respond to a restriction until it is tested and rigorously evaluated.”