Americans are Using Food Stamps to Buy Junk Food

Jill Ryer-Powder, Ph.D.

An op-ed piece to be published in the Los Angeles Times in response to “Nutritional profile of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program household food and beverage purchases” Authored by Anna Grummon and Linsey Smith Taillie and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Grummon and Tallie, 2017).

What are the typical foods that households receiving aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchase?  An article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that in 2012 SNAP households had high purchases of unhealthy junk foods and low purchases of healthy fruits, vegetables, and fiber (Grummon and Tallie, 2017).  SNAP households purchased an average of 476 calories per person per day of junk food (desserts, sweet snacks, candy, sweeteners, and salty snacks) compared to an average of 56 calories per person per day of fruits, vegetables, starches, and legumes.  This information is backed by a report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) showing the top commodity purchased by households participating in SNAP in 2011 was soft drinks, accounting for 5.4% of expenditures and $357.7 million (USEA, 2016a).

One out of every seven Americans participates in the $71 billion federally-assisted SNAP program (USDA, 2017).  SNAP’s goal of improving the diets of low-income Americans, imperative given this population’s high rates of diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes (Barnall, 2011), is clearly not being met.   Grummon and Tallie’s data show the average sodium intake was 2764 milligrams per day (mg/day), compared to the recommendation of less than 2300 mg/day presented in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (USDA/HHS, 2015).  Sugar and saturated fat represented 27.5% and 15% of the average total calories, respectively, both of which are in excess of the Dietary Guideline’s goal of less than 10% each.  Saturated fat and sugar are of particular health concern due to their association with diabetes, obesity, and heart disease (USDA/HHS, 2015).

The USDA must restrict foods purchased with federal money.  The federal government shouldn’t subsidize foods that its own dietary guidelines tell Americans to consume less of.  The idea of restrictions on SNAP purchases is not new.  It’s been attempted by at least 9 states and each time requests to USDA have been denied (Simon, 2014).  Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, stated “USDA is committed to expanding access for SNAP participants to the types of foods that are important to a healthy diet.” (USDA, 2016b).  Yet, to date, no state, city or municipality has been allowed to implement restrictions.  The USDA blocked Maine, New York City, and Minnesota from banning the purchase of certain kinds of foods using SNAP benefits saying that the proposals were not specific enough or would not provide a sufficient evaluation of success (Fifield, 2017).   Food industry groups opposed to restricting benefits say that restrictions are burdensome to implement and are not likely to change eating habits (Fifield, 2017).  However, a study conducted at Stanford University showed that banning the use of SNAP benefits to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages could reduce obesity and diabetes among low-income Americans (Basu et al., 2014).

There are ample resources available to improve the nutrition associated with purchases by SNAP households but they are not being implemented.  Stakeholders must join together to promote healthy eating patterns through revised policies and interventions.


Barnhill, A.  Impact and ethics of excluding sweetened beverages from the SNAP program.  Am J Public Health 2011; 101:2037-43.

Basu, S, Seligman, HK, Gardner, C, Bhattacharya, J.  Ending SNAP Subsidies For Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Could Reduce Obesity And Type 2 Diabetes.  Health Affairs 2014; 6:1032-1039.

Grummon, A, Tallie, L.  Nutritional profile of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program household food and beverage purchases.  Am J Clin Nutri 2017; 105:1433-42.

Fifield, J.  Should people be barred from buying junk food with food stamps/ The PEW Charitable Trusts [Internet].  Dated February 24, 2017.  Accessed July 23, 2017.


Simon, M.  Food Stamps Follow the Money.  EatDrink Politics [Internet].

Dated June, 2012.  Accessed July 23, 2017.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service. 2017.  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation and cost [Internet].  Dated July 7, 2017. Accessed July 21, 2017.

USDA Food and Nutrition Service. 2016a.  Foods Typically Purchased by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households. [Internet].  Dated November, 2016.  Accessed July 21, 2017.

USDA Food and Nutrition Service. 2016b.  USDA Proposes Policies to Improve Food Access, Healthy Choices for Low-income Americans. [Internet]. Dated February 16, 2016.  Accessed July 23, 2017.

USDA and Health and Human Services (HHS).  2015.  2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  8th Edition.  December.