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Addressing the False Claims from Industry Groups on Pilot Testing SNAP Restrictions

COSM Commentary

February 29, 2024

The House Agriculture Committee recently released an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2024 that sets aside $2 million to implement five pilot programs that would make certain unhealthy items ineligible for purchase with SNAP benefits. (For context, the $2 million represents roughly 0.000016% of the overall SNAP budget). The purpose of these pilot projects is to assess whether restrictions on SNAP benefits can positively affect recipients’ diet and health. Proponents of restrictions argue that it could help address worsening diet-related health conditions among low-income Americans.

Unsurprisingly, two industry groups—the Snack Food Association and the National Grocers’ Association—sent letters to Congressional leaders opposing funds for these pilots. Although these groups most likely oppose the pilots because they may hurt their bottom line, each group makes a variety of arguments for why they oppose the pilots. None of these reasons, however, stands up to much scrutiny.

  1. Hundreds of items in grocery stores are already restricted from SNAP

The National Grocers Association letter claims that restrictions will “strangle the program with needless red tape with no meaningful public health outcome to show in return.” Grocers often argue that any restrictions on SNAP would induce bureaucratic inefficiencies because they would need to update point-of-sale systems (i.e. cash registers) to ensure that ineligible items cannot be purchased with SNAP.

But the idea that additional SNAP restrictions will substantially increase red tape is simply untrue. SNAP already includes several restrictions that make many products on grocery store shelves ineligible for purchase, and point-of-sale systems are already programmed to distinguish between these goods. For example, SNAP recipients cannot purchase, among other things, napkins, toilet paper, dog food, batteries, bandages, alcohol, kitchen utensils, party favors, school supplies, or birthday cards. Grocers’ point-of-sale systems are already equipped to handle transactions that include both SNAP eligible and ineligible products. Adding more products to the list might require some effort, but it is disingenuous to suggest that adding more items will “strangle the program.” Additionally, one of the primary goals of pilot testing SNAP restrictions is to answer questions about the level of administrative burden they might place on retailers.

2. FNS has already determined that studying restrictions serves a public health need

The National Grocer’s Association also claims that restrictions will have no meaningful effect on public health outcomes. This claim is untested. In fact, the precise point of the pilot program is to determine whether restrictions will have any effect on recipients’ diets and nutrition. Already, research suggests that restrictions reduce consumption of unhealthy foods, suggesting that restrictions will likely also improve public health outcomes.

This is likely the reason USDA staff from both President Trump’s and President Biden’s administrations have proposed pilots to restrict SNAP benefits to healthy foods. In FY 2017, the FNS included designing a pilot to study SNAP restrictions in their research and evaluation plan. It was also included in FNS’s FY 2023 evaluation plan , and the design phase started this year.

Regardless of each administration’s stance on restrictions, both Democrats and Republicans should agree that restrictions are worth studying. The FY 2023 FNS evaluation plan summarizes this motivation: “Some stakeholders in the public health community argue that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could more effectively support healthy food choices if restrictions were placed on the use of benefits for less healthy foods, especially sugar-sweetened beverages. Others claim that such restrictions would be administratively burdensome, overly paternalistic, potentially stigmatizing, and likely ineffective. Many aspects of this debate can best be addressed with empirical evidence.” 

According to the FNS’s website: “The Food and Nutrition Service conducts a variety of studies, evaluations, and related activities that respond to the needs of policy makers and managers and help ensure that nutrition assistance programs achieve their goals effectively.” The House Agriculture appropriations bill will fund a study that was already planned as part of FNS’s research and evaluation plan.

3. SNAP is designed to promote nutrition, not offer unlimited choice

Both industry letters argue that restrictions limit consumer choice. However, neither letter addresses the fact that SNAP is both supplemental and aimed at improving nutrition. First, SNAP is intended to cover a portion of a households’ food budget along with other household resources. SNAP recipients can still purchase any products, so long as they do so with their own resources. Secondly, SNAP is designed to support low-income households’ nutrition. Many unhealthy foods, such as sugary beverages, offer no real nutritional value and can cause significant health problems for low-income Americans. Making items like these ineligible for purchase with SNAP could significantly reduce consumption of unhealthy foods. Certainly, it is possible that a pilot study would show that SNAP households continue to consume unhealthy foods with their own money, rendering restrictions obsolete. But these dynamics are precisely what a pilot test will be designed to study.

4. Government should be good stewards of public dollars

The first sentence in the declaration of policy for SNAP states: “It is declared to be the policy of Congress, in order to promote the general welfare, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households.” The law is clear that an effective program will improve nutrition. Therefore, it is important to assess whether SNAP is meeting this goal. Piloting testing SNAP restrictions and gathering data on SNAP purchases is an important part of this assessment. If SNAP is not meeting the goal of improving nutrition, then the federal government should reconsider its utility.

The motivation among industry groups to oppose the pilot testing of SNAP restrictions and the collection of data on SNAP purchases is clear — it might hurt their bottom line. Nonetheless, regardless of industry interests, it is inappropriate to use taxpayer dollars intended to help improve nutrition among low-income households on products that harm their health. Pilot testing nutrition-improvement approaches, as well as gathering evidence on SNAP purchases, is crucial to addressing these questions.