Last month, members of the House of Representatives and Senate sent a letter encouraging Farm Bill negotiators to consider the Hot Foods Act. The legislation would allow recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to use their benefits on hot prepared meals sold at grocery stores. Currently, the program restricts hot foods from purchase because the program is for food items prepared at home. At the same time, however, SNAP allows unhealthy food items that detract from the nutrition goals of the program.
Because consumers’ preparation and consumption habits have changed dramatically since the inception of SNAP, the current list of allowable items no longer align with the realities of the program. While Congress should consider allowing SNAP users to purchase hot, prepared meals, they should also restrict recipients from purchasing unhealthy foods, such as sugary beverages.
It is worth noting that SNAP recipients face much more severe physical health challenges compared to the rest of the population. Our research has shown that SNAP recipients have much higher rates of diet-related disease and obesity than low-income adults not receiving SNAP (Figure 1).
These findings, along with data documenting SNAP recipients’ disproportionate spending on desserts and sweetened beverages—call into question SNAP’s effectiveness in achieving its core goal of improving nutrition. Unemployed SNAP recipients often cite poor health as the primary reason for not working. And while it is unclear whether SNAP causes poor health outcomes or simply correlates with them, the reality is that SNAP recipients have markedly worse health than the rest of Americans, suggesting that more could be done to promote healthy living among SNAP recipients.
Policymakers have long debated whether SNAP should cover certain foods—such as prepared foods and sugary beverages. When federal lawmakers first created the program in 1939, policymakers chose to allow recipients to purchase any food items except “drugs, liquor, and items consumed on the premises.” But as early as 1941, the law barred recipients from using the program to purchase “soft drinks, such as ginger ale, root beer, sarsaparilla, pop, and all artificial mineral water.” When the federal government reformed the food stamp program in 1964, the House bill excluded the purchase of sodas, but the Senate removed that exclusion, citing “insurmountable administrative problems” for retailers.
As it currently stands, SNAP allows recipients to purchase “any food or food product for home consumption except alcohol, tobacco, hot foods, or hot food products ready for immediate consumption…” However, under current law, SNAP users are free to purchase cold prepared foods—such as a salad or a sandwich—or to buy a cold prepared item and heat it up later, as long as the items are intended for home consumption. Even though restricting hot foods from SNAP is understandable, the application of the current policy is illogical.
The inconsistencies in opposing health-oriented SNAP restrictions while supporting hot food purchases are also notable. One of the most commonly cited reasons for opposing the exclusion of sugary beverages is that it would create too great of an administrative burden on grocers. Proponents of this argument suggest that grocers would have to invest significant resources to comply with the updated rules—they would have to re-categorize food products, retrain staff, and otherwise bear the burden of ever-changing regulations. However, many of those who are quickest to cite these administrative burdens caused by restrictions also support expanding access to hot foods. But what makes the administrative burden of disallowing sugary beverages any more cumbersome than allowing the purchase of hot foods while continuing to disallow alcohol and tobacco?
SNAP is one of the nation’s most vital safety net programs, providing much needed food assistance to millions of Americans. As the program has evolved over the past 80 years, the context in which it operates has changed dramatically. Time constraints have made preparing healthy food challenging, especially for low-income households. Food preparation takes nearly one hour per day, and expanding access to hot prepared foods almost certainly frees up time for low-income families to spend on their children or working.
However, if Congress permits hot prepared foods to address the problem of time constraints, they should also restrict unhealthy options from SNAP, such as sugary beverages, to address the nutrition problem. The key public health concern for SNAP participants has become obesity and diet-related disease, and sugary beverages offer no nutritional value while likely contributing to the already-severe health crisis. Insofar as policymakers wish to promote healthy living and upward mobility among SNAP recipients, they should consider pairing increased access to hot foods with decreased access to unhealthy foods.