Deceptions in the Hunger Crusade, Part 2

SNAP Food Stamps


Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the formal name for what is commonly known as food stamps. It is a $78 billion-a-year program. Food stamp participation doubled from 2004-2012, from 23 million recipients to 46 million.  Yet “food insecurity” increased by 25% during the same period[1]. This dichotomy may best be reconciled by admitting the weakness of the term “food insecurity.”


It is not accurate to call this primarily a nutrition program. Nutrition seems a low priority to those who use the program. Convenience and flavor are recipients’ obvious priorities, and who can blame them? Many items purchased with food stamps are not nutritious. By one measure, $16 billion goes for sugary drinks and another $16 billion for chips, bagged snacks and candy[2]-the official candy bar of food stamps appears to be Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll- so every day, food stamps recipients spend $87 million for these unhealthful items. Store clerks admit that the purchases they ring up include a lot of junk, “stuff not very good for you.” This author has asked scores of grocery clerks what food stamps buy. Invariably they grimace and mention pop, chips, candy and donuts, or items that are fancier than they, the clerks, can afford.


When House Republicans recently passed a bill cutting 5% from the food stamp program, food aid advocates howled. said that, “As many as 3.8 million people would lose their food stamp benefits[3].” If sugary drinks, candy, chips and bagged snacks were prohibited, as they are in the Women, Infants and Children food program, no person would lose benefits and the program could be cut by 42%.

One grocery clerk the author interviewed said, “Food stamps are abused. They are abused by people who have no right to be on them. People can buy pop, which I disagree with. They buy a $6.00 sandwich from the deli when for $6.00 they could buy a loaf of bread and ingredients and have sandwiches for a week. We’ve asked people why they don’t do this and they say, ‘I don’t want to cook.’ They want it easy. We had a lady who bought cupcakes for her daughter’s school class using food stamps. One boy who appeared to be barely eighteen, and thus eligible by age for food stamps on his own, came to the store. He was dressed in Hot Topics-type gothic clothes. Shirts from Hot Topics are $30-50. Pants are $50-75. He had expensive, girly boots that cost $50-100. He had tons of bracelets that cost $5 each. He had at least $50 of jewelry. His girlfriend was similarly attired. He bought food items with food stamps. I thought, ‘The audacity!’”


It irritates her when people buy with food stamps yet carry a $500-$5,000 Prada or designer purse. Even knock-offs of designer purses are $100.


An Office of Public Assistance (OPA) worker said, “The Food Stamp program is very lax. We have no way to verify what recipients tell us. We can’t call the landlord and ask for verification that all the people listed on the application form actually live at that address. Lying about household composition is a daily occurrence. The people that come into our office don’t feel they should have to buy any food with their own money. That’s their money. They think the government is supposed to buy their food for them. They get food stamps so it frees up their other income for other discretionary purchases.”


“I go over what they can’t buy with food stamps. They can’t buy deli foods. They say, ‘You mean I can’t go to the deli and buy those expensive meats and cheeses for $14 per pound, I have to go to the meat counter and the dairy aisle and buy ordinary meats and cheeses?’ They’re infuriated.”


Asked “How many of your clients are feeble or temporarily needy, and likely to rebuild their lives if they just got some help, say they just lost a job or had some adverse circumstance?” she answered that 10% of her clients fit the profile of temporarily needy people taxpayers would love to help.


The OPA worker said many of her clients have Blackberry phones, nicer cars and internet access than she does, fake nails, hair extensions, tattoos and piercings, and can afford expensive food items she has to forego.


One man with a wife and four children, who was on food stamps and one other aid program and who hadn’t worked in some time, lamented that he had to sell one of his five horses because pasture rent was costing too much[4]. In his case, taxpayers were buying household food so he could buy horse food. In a roundabout way, tax funds were buying food for horses, an unexpected use of food stamps, indeed!


The food stamp program pretends that people are buying ingredients for cooking. In an analysis of store receipts that shows line items, scant evidence appears for this claim. Almost no receipts showed purchases of items that required cooking or any other kinds of preparation. Items typically can be immediately consumed, torn open, guzzled, or at most warmed up. No cozy family suppers around the dinner table, after a tradition-rich cooking hour, can be inferred from what is purchased.


A compilation of recent food stamp receipts reveals non-nutritive items purchased with food stamps. Jell-O No Bake Oreo Cookie Dessert Mix, Nabisco Cheese Nips, Gatorade All Star, Betty Crocker Fruit Gushers, Mountain Dew, Capri Sun Mountain Cooler, Mini Marshmallows, Crème Soda, Mr. Goodbar Giant, Sobe Adrenaline, Ocean Spray Orange Juice, Diet Coke 12 Pak, Fridge Pak Diet Soda, Kitkat Minis, Ginger Snaps, Mountain Dew, Frappuccino, more Frappuccino, Dr. Pepper, Western Family Fruit Rings, Western Family Kookies Choc, Post Golden Crisp Cereal, Red Bull.


The movie, A Place at the Table, portrays food stamp recipients getting along on spaghetti. In $2,600 worth of food stamp store receipts this author has garnered, no spaghetti, noodles, oatmeal, tuna, rice, lentils, or dried beans was seen. Healthful, substantive food should be available to the hungry; highly packaged and processed foods and non-nutritive consumable items should be restricted. Restrictions like those in the Women, Infants and Children program would go a long way toward making the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program live up to the nutrition claim in its title.


A family with four children on free school lunch and SNAP will have about $16,800 per year in subsidized food, a figure that precludes hunger. Food bank food for some is on top of this figure.


Here is a quote from a person who is friends with numerous medical students:


(This author asked her how many of the medical students’ families were on food stamps.) She responded, “I can only think of one family out of about 25 that aren’t on food stamps, and they have a military stipend. Her friends “all do food stamps, one of whom said, “We have $500 for food each month, and we can’t even spend it all.”

“Right off the top of my head, I can think of two women, wives of medical students, who do cake decorating. Fancy, elaborate cake decorating. Expensive hobby? Not if you’re on food stamps!”

“About a month ago, I went to my friend’s baby shower. Her husband is a medical student, and the girl that hosted the baby shower was also the wife of a medical student, as were almost all the guests. The food table was elaborate! Four different kinds of decadent, home-made cupcakes, numerous candy bowls, multiple cookie trays, punch, etc. This is what food stamps are buying! Party food, dinner parties, Christmas treats, fancily decorated cakes. I’ve seen it first hand!”


According a low-income housing manager[5], food stamp recipients discard and share considerable amounts of food. Every time the manager cleans an apartment at move-out time he finds copious amounts of food abandoned.


One couple[6] received food stamps for a month early in their married life. They said that during the month they were on food stamps, they had far more food than when they were buying all their own in the months preceding and following, months in which they considered their financial and food lives normal.


Taxpayers want to help end hunger, but the way the SNAP food stamp program is used gives little evidence of widespread hunger.



The SNAP Challenge


Claim: The SNAP Challenge simulates life on food stamps

Truth: The SNAP Challenge distorts


What is the SNAP Challenge? “Participating in the SNAP Challenge is simple: eat for one week using only the amount of money you would have if you relied solely[7] on SNAP to pay for your food. Each person can spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week. This budget translates to $4.50 per day, or $1.50 per meal[8].”


A full food stamp allotment is $200 a month, or $2.22 a meal. A good food bank[9] gives a single individual 160 pounds of food for the month[10] valued at over $320. That is another $3.56 a meal and brings the total up to $5.78, a far cry from the miserly $1.50 required by SNAP Challenge rules.


The same friend quoted in the introduction who discarded the food bank solicitation mentioned being surprised to read about a homeless man in a newspaper who got $200 monthly in food stamps. This friend said that was way more than he spends for food. The homeless man also visits the food bank.


Most food stamp recipients are not helpless. They earn money that can supplement the $5.78. They might even get food discarded or shared by other recipients. One young lady, interviewed by the author, said her roommate, who was on food stamps, freely gave away food.


With a child in school, SNAP Challenge Week is less daunting. The child’s needs are met at school; a child gets breakfast, morning snack, lunch, possibly after-school supper, and a backpack full of food meant to feed the child through the weekend[11], so other householders get to eat what food stamps provides for the child, increasing the per meal allotment. The total per meal allowance could be $7.67, not including earned food and items other recipients share from their excess. This figure is about three times what the average American spends per meal.


In Anchorage, Alaska, recipients get an extra 20% in SNAP benefits[12], though the food component of the cost of living is only 4% higher[13] than in the rest of the country. Taking the SNAP Challenge there would be less challenging than in other states.


The SNAP Challenge gives a false impression of what life for food stamp recipients is like.



Can Obesity be Caused by Hunger?


Claim: The theory of calorie mining squares the circle of simultaneous obesity and hunger

Truth: Explanations from common sense trump convoluted science


Some explain obesity in the poor, the supposedly hungry, like Sandra Lee[14] does here:


Moreover, there is an unexpected–but frequent–link between hunger and obesity. The inexpensive foods that these families and children often must rely on have a greater number of calories and less nutritional value than more expensive fruits and vegetables. In addition, these unfortunate individuals often experience irregular eating patterns–having food one day but not the next–which can lead to weight gain.


Lee seems to say, “Recipients choose cheap, unhealthy foods because they are calorie-dense; they do it as a survival mechanism.” Store receipts show this to be a fallacy. If Lee’s theory were true, recipients would not buy a $2.00 liter bottle of Pepsi at Papa Murphy’s, but would go two blocks away, to Albertson’s, where a two liter Pepsi is $1.59. They also would not choose Pepsi for $4.99 for 144 fl. oz. in Albertson’s, when they could walk four steps and choose the same size store brand, Superchill, for $2.99. Store receipts show food stamp recipients often choose costly national brands over economical generics and store brands. Recipients do not seem to be constrained by a low food stamp allotment. This author’s analysis of soda purchased in full-service grocery stores shows 87% of purchases were for brand-name soda.


Hunger is largely unseen but fattening girths are readily seen; obesity blossoms on all sides. Yet purported hunger persists in the same populations. They are a knotty twosome. Hunger advocates toil to square the circle of simultaneous hunger and obesity in low-income populations.


The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) puts it this way:


Households with limited resources to buy enough food often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling – that is, they try to maximize their calories per dollar in order to stave off hunger[15].


FRAC also blames “greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products.” Could this merely be a way of referring to more time on the couch spent watching television? “Adverse socioeconomic position,” in layman’s terms, having a low income, “is associated with a cumulative increase in the time spent on screen-based entertainment[16].” Another cause of the obesity in the hungry, according to FRAC, is  “cycles of food deprivation and overeating.” This explanation should be taken cautiously, when a simple, obvious explanation, over-abundance of tasty food items, is at hand.


Researchers have found that food stamp program participation is positively related to obesity in low income women[17]. In practical terms, receiving food stamps causes obesity.


The Centers for Disease Control publishes two county-level maps, one of obesity and another of food stamp participation rates. They show a close correspondence. Where food stamp usage is high, so is the incidence of obesity.


Earlier in this article, receipts were shown to discredit by the ballyhooed claim of low-income peoples’ reliance on dried pasta products.


Calorie maximizers cited by Sandra Lee and FRAC turn out to be taste maximizers, convenience maximizers. Food stamp recipients have enough credit on their EBT cards to choose convenience, taste and brand loyalty; few need to stretch their allowance.


An obvious explanation beckons, contorted explanations notwithstanding. Being overweight is an expected result of the conjunction of abundant, tasty food-like items, and average appetites.


Forty-two times as many Americans are overweight or obese as are underweight[18], and not all cases of being underweight are attributable to lack of resources for food. For all but a few, excess of food is a bigger problem than lack.


Obesity in the low-income populations is best explained by appetites satisfied by free food, not calorie-maximizing.

[2] Extrapolation from store receipt data in the author’s possession

[4] Author interview with the man who bought the horse

[5] interview by the author

[6] Author interview

[7] This sole reliance claim is a fallacy in the Challenge. Few people rely solely on SNAP food stamps. They access school food, summer food programs, Headstart food, subsidized congregate meals, commodity distribution programs, community kitchens, Indian Reservation food programs, subsidized day-care food, food banks, and food purchased with earned income.  If persons rely solely on food stamps, they receive the full allotment, $2.22, not the average amount of $1.50. Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee point out that food stamps supplements other sources of income and food; they refute the sole reliance claim.


[9] If you live near a parsimonious food bank that only gives you a four day supply every month, you might have to do with $2.22 plus $.67, or $2.89 per meal, as a single individual. This exceeds what Americans spend on average.

[10] Interview with a food bank manager


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