The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—also known as the food stamp program—is a multi-billion dollar program that helps people living in poverty to get the food they need.
However, people on food stamps are more likely to eat a diet lacking in nutrients and to lack the time and skills to cook fresh food . What this means is that people using these benefits are spending their money on processed foods and sugar which ultimately affects their health.
What’s interesting is that both people on food stamps and not on food stamps are consuming very similar amounts of calories, but where these calories are coming from differs. These calories are more likely to come from drinks sweetened with sugar, processed meat, and high-fat dairy .
With 44 million people in the United States on food stamps and the program running at approximately $70 billion, one representative in Texas wants to dictate what exactly food stamp benefits can be spent on by excluding some of the most unhealthy items from the menu.
What Exactly the Texas Bill Proposes
State Representative Briscoe Cain R-Baytown filed the bill HB 4364 in March of this year in House Committee for Human Services.
The bill proposes that people with food stamps would not be able to buy:
- Energy drinks, or any beverages that contain 54 mg or more of caffeine per 8 fluid ounces, excluding coffee.
- Sweetened beverages (either naturally or artificially sweetened)
- Carbonated beverages
- Potato or corn chips
However, people would still be able to buy fruit or vegetable juice with their benefits. The bill is designed to encourage people receiving SNAP benefits to purchase healthier foods and not spend so much of their money on sugar which can ultimately compromise their health.
The Bill Was Purposed to Curb Diabetes
Cain aims to stop the proliferation of diabetes in the state of Texas with his, what some are calling dramatic, bill.
“At-risk Texans and families who utilize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are often the most susceptible to diabetes and the serious complications associated with it,” says State Representative Briscoe Cain.
“HB 4364 seeks to curb the spread of diabetes and other health complications among Texans in at-risk populations by eliminating sugary drinks and snacks from the state’s nutrition assistance program,” he said.
Over 2.8 million people in the state of Texas live with diabetes, and the cost of this health condition is an estimated $23.7 billion every year .
This cost includes the complications that diabetes is associated with, many of them serious, including heart disease, nerve, kidney, and eye damage, depression, infections, and even death .
The Problem with Food Stamps
Did you know that more than half of SNAP benefits are used for meats, sweetened beverages, prepared foods and desserts, cheese, salty snacks, candy, and sugar? Only 23.9 percent go towards fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, beans, and seeds, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine .
These numbers have changed since three years ago when data from 2016 showed that about 40 cents of every dollar were spent on items such as fruits and vegetables. In 2016, this same data showed that more money was spent on soft drinks than any other item for people receiving SNAP benefits .
Taxpaying Americans have questioned the integrity of the SNAP program since so much of the money goes towards unhealthy foods and drinks such as soda that can ultimately lead to health complications such as diabetes.
Without more incentives and education for people receiving these benefits to eat healthier, they’ll continue to purchase these items that are negatively affecting their health and costing states even more money in medical bills.
What Can Be Done?
Since the food stamp program is federal, states can’t make their own restrictions on what recipients can purchase. However, a growing number of states are concerned that the very people the food stamp program is designed to benefit is instead contributing to a growing obesity epidemic.
Researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health put together a paper where they outline ways we can combat the problem with food stamp benefits going towards unhealthy purchases, which some say holds potential to curb the purchase of unhealthy foods with SNAP .
One of these ways is to offer a 30 percent subsidy for people who buy healthy items such as fruits and vegetables, meaning people could still buy unhealthy items, but they’d get 30 percent less for their money. There is evidence that incentives such as this work, even if they alone wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem, and certainly not immediately .
However, it’s becoming more clear that in order to encourage people in low-income households to purchase healthier food items for their family, something needs to be done whether educational programs or incentives are offered by the USDA.
Will the Bill Pass?
This isn’t the first time a bill of this nature has been introduced in the United States.
Lawmakers in five states—Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Tennessee—introduced bills in 2017 urging the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to restrict the purchase of foods such as candy and soda with food stamps .
None of these bills have come to pass. It seems unlikely that bill HB 4364 would pass, especially in Texas, where drinks such as soda continue to be common in households and the obesity rate was last measured in 2017 at 33 percent .
However, the bill from State Representative Briscoe Cain is yet another push for the USDA to take steps toward ensuring recipients of SNAP benefits make better choices for their health.
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