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Banning SNAP use on “bad” foods won’t work – and could backfire

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The Hill, July 2024

Will banning use of food stamps on “bad” foods improve the health of low-income Americans? Some in Washington say they want to find out. Language in the recently released House Agricultural Appropriations bill for fiscal 2025 will authorize up to five states to pilot restrictions on the types of food available for purchase using benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Proponents in Congress argue that such restrictions are needed to save taxpayers in future health care costs due to poor diet. Others, notably some nutritionists and food advocates, are eager to reduce the incidence of obesity and diet-linked diseases often associated with the overconsumption of ultra-processed foods heavy in sugar, fat or salt. 

I’ve spent years researching SNAP’s history, political durability and its impacts on food insecurity, poverty and health. Proposals to ban SNAP use on “bad” foods are perennial features of program politics going as far back as debates over the first Food Stamp Act, signed into law on Aug. 31, 1964. None were approved, and this time should be no different. Whatever the motivations behind them, such restrictions won’t work. First, the ultra-processed foods these proposals target are cheap, convenient and engineered for flavor. That is why people of all incomes buy them. And poor people aren’t stupid; they’re just trying to get the greatest caloric bang for the buck.

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