Close this search box.

Can Restricting “Bad” Foods in SNAP Programs Really Improve Health?

The ongoing debate in Washington about whether restricting the purchase of “bad” foods using food stamps can boost the health of low-income Americans has taken a new turn. The latest proposal from the House Agricultural Appropriations bill for fiscal 2025 suggests piloting such restrictions in up to five states. This measure aims to reduce healthcare costs linked to poor diets and combat obesity and diet-related diseases. But will such a strategy prove effective, or could it actually backfire?

From a historical and practical viewpoint, the attempt to impose food restrictions within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) appears to be a complex issue fraught with challenges. This isn’t a new debate; restrictions on SNAP purchases have been a contentious topic since the first Food Stamp Act was signed into law in 1964. Despite the recurring discussions, no substantial restrictions have been enacted, and for good reasons.

Firstly, the target of these proposed restrictions—ultra-processed foods—are not only affordable but also engineered to be highly palatable, making them popular among consumers across all income levels. For many low-income individuals, products like a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese offer a more economical choice than healthier options like broccoli or fresh fish. These foods provide a substantial caloric intake for a minimal cost, an important consideration for families stretching every dollar.

Moreover, the practicality of enforcing such restrictions is highly questionable. SNAP is designed to be a supplementary aid, and most households receiving benefits also have some amount of cash for other expenditures. This leads to what economists call an “inframarginal effect,” where even if SNAP can’t be used for certain items, households might simply use cash to purchase them.

The logistical challenges extend further. Implementing a system that selectively approves or denies purchases based on their nutritional value would not only be administratively burdensome but also contentious. Deciding which foods are “bad” could lead to endless debates and disagreements, similar to those seen in other nutritional programs like school meals or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Retailers, too, are not in favor of this idea. Additional restrictions could complicate transactions, creating delays and inconveniences at checkout lines, affecting all customers, not just those using SNAP. This could potentially lead some stores, especially small local ones, to opt out of accepting SNAP altogether, which would counteract efforts to increase retailer participation in the program.

Perhaps the most significant issue with such restrictions is the stigma they reinforce among SNAP recipients. Switching from colored food stamps to benefit cards was a step toward reducing this stigma, making SNAP transactions more discreet and dignified. Adding new restrictions could reverse these gains, making SNAP users feel even more scrutinized and marginalized.

Instead of restrictions, what has shown promise are incentive programs that encourage the purchase of healthy foods. Programs like “healthy incentives” or “bounty bucks” have successfully increased the consumption of fruits and vegetables among SNAP recipients. These initiatives, along with adjustments in the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which recalibrated SNAP benefits to allow for the purchase of healthier foods, have demonstrated positive outcomes in both food security and health for SNAP households.

Furthermore, the political landscape surrounding SNAP is delicate. The support of the food industry is crucial for the program’s sustainability. Introducing restrictions could alienate these vital allies, shifting their support away from SNAP and jeopardizing the program’s future.

In conclusion, while the intention behind restricting the purchase of certain foods through SNAP might be to improve public health, the approach raises several practical, logistical, and ethical concerns. History and research suggest that enhancing SNAP benefits, along with targeted incentive programs, is a more effective and less contentious strategy to improve dietary habits among low-income Americans without compromising the program’s integrity or alienating those it aims to assist.