Every five years, Congress and the President debate how to improve the federal government’s many agricultural and nutritional programs by reauthorizing a national Farm Bill. As a component of this debate, Congress reauthorizes a program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called “food stamps.”

As a matter of the reauthorization, Congress reevaluates and reestablishes who is eligible for SNAP, what benefits are available, and access to the program. In recent years, a contentious debate has arisen over SNAP Choice and the pros and cons of such standards to improve the health of the general population. This Basic lays out the current debate surrounding SNAP Choice and what is could mean for the program recipients.

What is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program?

The policy of food distribution as a form of hunger relief got its start in 1933 as part of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). The program’s history started during of the Great Depression when farmers were experiencing crop prices in freefall and excess supply of commodities. In an effort to aid farmers, the federal government bought excess commodities at discounted prices to be distributed through hunger relief programs in states and municipalities.

Today, SNAP, which is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), is the largest nutrition assistance program in the United States. It provides benefits to low-income individuals and provides economic stability to communities who might otherwise struggle. To be eligible for SNAP, households must meet certain income brackets.

SNAP Choice debate in real time

SNAP Choice is the concept that the federal government may or may not play a role in limiting or restricting which products SNAP recipients may purchase with their benefits. Two main arguments are at the center of the debate over SNAP choice.

The first argument makes the case that the government has no business deciding which foods an individual may purchase regardless of their need for food assistance. Proponents of preserving SNAP choice say that parents who are in the position of requiring food assistance must have every option available to them to ensure their families are fed. And with nearly 25% of children in the U.S. relying on SNAP for basic food needs, the government is not in a position to be restricting which foods children eat. Such a policy, they argue, would place a heavy burden on local grocery stores with new requirements to inventory and track the ever-changing list of “healthy” foods. It could even force some small grocery stores to become ineligible from accepting SNAP benefits. Proponents of SNAP Choice argue that greater nutrition education about healthy foods as well as incentives are the best way to encourage healthier shopping and eating habits.

Preserving choice in the SNAP program has long been a shared bi-partisan opinion. It has been a priority shared by the Departments of Agriculture in both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 2003, then-Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty applied for a waiver from President Bush’s Department of Agriculture, asking that Minnesota be allowed to determine which foods and beverages were eligible for SNAP benefits. Several years later in 2010, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg applied for a similar waiver from the Obama Administration. During the first year of the Trump administration, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage sought a SNAP choice waiver as well. All three waivers were rejected.

The position that the government shouldn’t interfere in an individual’s food choices has long been shared by the Congressional Hunger Center. They state, “CHC opposes limiting food choice for SNAP participants. Anti-hunger advocates have worked hard to eliminate “stigma” in SNAP by making food purchases through electronic benefit transactions (EBT cards). Eliminating food choice would reinstitute stigma in SNAP. Additionally, USDA research indicates that the diets of SNAP participants are generally comparable to the diets of Americans of similar economic means, and that Americans of all income groups need to improve their diets.”

The second argument seeks to limit SNAP choice. Citing the obesity epidemic as, perhaps, America’s largest public health problem, limitations on which foods and beverages SNAP recipients can purchase with their benefits have been proposed. The argument continues that, obesity in America is costing the healthcare system upwards of $150 billion annually, and the associated effects are likely to spillover into the workplace, therefore government has a responsibility to step in where the economy of the United States could be adversely affected. Since SNAP is a government program funded by the taxpayers, it should not be unreasonable for the government to set standards and restrict SNAP recipients to purchasing only “healthy” foods that could improve the health and well-being of the millions enrolled in SNAP.

Legislative and Executive Positions on SNAP Choice

Currently, negotiators for the 2018 Farm Bill have not indicated that there will be any proposed changes regarding SNAP choice. In July of 2017, several Democrats who sit on the House Committee on Agriculture expressed concern that the House Republican budget resolution for fiscal year 2018 included $10 billion in cuts to Agriculture Committee programs, of which, major cuts would be made to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. They say this could derail the entire Farm Bill if these cuts aren’t addressed.

Under the Obama Administration, further restrictions on SNAP were rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program. When rejected, U.S.D.A. expressed concerns that further restrictions could increase the stigma and embarrassment already associated with food stamps, possibly affecting program beneficiaries, many of whom are children. In addition they felt that she’s restrictions unfairly target poorer Americans. Instead, the previous Agriculture Department administration favored incentives over restrictions. The current Administration has not indicated their policy on such measures.

It is important to note, however, that many other federal programs administered by the Department of Agriculture are subject to product-specific restrictions. For example, Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which is a federal program for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, and to infants and children who are found to be at nutritional risk as well as the national school lunch program which helps feed more than 31 million children each school day all, both have very specific regulations about how benefits and grant money can be spent.

Key Facts

● Number of American receiving SNAP benefits: 43 million
● The average length of time a participant stays on the program is 9 months

● 2015 Average Monthly SNAP Benefit by Demographic Group:
– All Households: $254
– Households with Children$393
– Working Households: $303
– Households with seniors: $128
– Households with non-elderly, disabled individuals: $193

● Households that continued to work after starting to receive SNAP: 96%

● Close to two-thirds of SNAP recipients are Children, Elderly or Disabled
– Children: 44%
– Non-elderly, non-disabled adults: 36%
▪ With Children: 21%
▪ Without Children: 15%
– Elderly/Disabled: 20%

Other Resources

● Center on Budget & Policy Priorities
– SNAP Basics
– Chart Book: SNAP Helps Struggling Families Put Food on the Table

● SNAP to Health!
– SNAP and Nutrition
– History of SNAP

– Foods Typically Purchased By Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households
– Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Links to Other Resources

AgriPulse – Choice comes to the SNAP Program

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) – SNAP Basics

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) – Chart Book: SNAP Helps Struggling Families Put Food on the Table

Congressional Hunger Center – What are our key international public policy issues?

Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

SNAP to Health! – SNAP and Nutrition

SNAP to Health! – History of SNAP

The Hill – Restricting what recipients of SNAP benefits eat won’t fix nutritional issues

The New York Times – How Restricting Food Stamp Choices Can Fight Obesity

USDA – Foods Typically Purchased By Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households

USDA – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)