Watching What You Eat

Why has the USDA been plumping up the food stamps program like a factory chicken?


Possibly the only cultural phenomenon that had a bigger year in 2010 than Justin Bieber was the needs-based entitlement program formerly known as Food Stamps. Now dubbed the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, or SNAP, it enrolled more than 40 million people for the first time in March 2010. By August that number had grown to 41,836,300. At that point, nearly one in seven Americans were receiving monthly payments of approximately $133, for a monthly government outlay of more than $5.5 billion.

"Nothing tells the reality of this economy better than this," Bloomberg Television news anchor Margaret Brennan uttered solemnly in January 2010, setting the tone for a year's worth of coverage. In May, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told the tale of an entertainment attorney who'd once earned $250,000 a year resorting to food stamps to feed his two kids. In June, NPR featured the story of a former restaurant critic who was now dining on Uncle Sam's dime. Even Newt Gingrich bought into SNAP's rapidly expanding girth as a telling metric of economic stagnation. "Which future do I want?" he wrote in an October memo sent to Republican candidates. "More food stamps? Or more paychecks?"

But the Great Recession isn't the whole story behind food stamps' Second Great Awakening. The Department of Agriculture's Food & Nutrition Service (FNS) has been engaged in a lengthy campaign to boost the program's enrollment rates. In 2000 just 16.9 million people were receiving food stamps, and only 50 percent of those who were eligible participated in the program. Then FNS and the state agencies that administer SNAP began streamlining application processes and ramping up their outreach efforts. By 2007, 66 percent of "eligibles" had been converted into participants, and preliminary data suggests that that percentage continued to increase in 2008 and 2009. SNAP, it turns out, is a rare and increasingly costly example of government efficiency. 

SNAP's growth was driven partly by the transition from paper-based coupons to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, a process that was mostly completed by 2004. Every month, the government deposits funds into accounts established for SNAP recipients, who then draw upon these funds via magnetic-strip cards that work at point-of-sale devices in more than 190,000 retail stores. "The card is convenient, secure, and reduces the stigma sometimes associated with public assistance," a California EBT website advises.

Convenient, stigma-free purchasing power is just one the way government has been, in the words of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, "breaking down barriers to participation" in SNAP. In theory, you cannot receive food stamps if your gross monthly income exceeds 130 percent of the poverty level. In addition, if you have "countable resources" such as bank accounts or vehicles that fail to qualify for certain exclusionary criteria, you're also ineligible. 

But while the federal government sets these standards, it also gives states the leeway to modify them. Under a process known as "broad-based categorical eligibility," SNAP applicants in dozens of states are now automatically considered eligible for food stamps if they're already participating in a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Details vary, but categorical eligibility typically means applicants can have gross incomes of up to 200 percent of the poverty level, aren't subject to asset tests, and don't need to verify their net incomes. Meanwhile, participation in a state-funded TANF program can be achieved simply by sending individuals informational brochures about various services.

Millions of people have entered SNAP under these circumstances. A Department of Agriculture report published in October 2010 notes that 66 percent of SNAP recipients in 2009 "were categorically eligible and thus neither subject to the asset test nor required to provide information about their assets." In one controversial 2009 case, an Ohio family of three who owned their fully paid off home, had a three-year-old Mercedes and one additional car, and held $80,000 in the bank qualified for $500 a month in food stamps.

The FNS and stage agencies have also figured out ways to increase the monthly payments that SNAP participants receive. Ultimately, a household's net income determines the size of its payment—the lower the net income, the higher the benefit. To lower their net incomes, recipients can claim various deductions, including one for utilities that can be as much as $273 a month. According to federal guidelines, recipients can claim the maximum utility deduction regardless of how much they actually spend on utilities as long as they participate in a Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). To take advantage of this fact, state agencies have started issuing annual fuel-assistance payments of $1 to SNAP recipients. In New York alone, administrators reportedly boosted monthly payments to 90,000 households by an average of $131 a month.

In part the FNS is pushing SNAP so hard because it believes the program functions as an economic stimulus. In 2008, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, testified before Congress that expanding the food stamp program was the most effective way to "prime the economy's pump." A $1 increase in payments, he suggested, boosts GDP by $1.73. Since then, annual food stamps outlays have jumped from $37 billion to more than $60 billion.

But while the government believes SNAP can bulk up the economy, it also believes the program can slenderize the body politic. In 2009, FNS chief Kevin Concannon suggested the agency's goal is to overhaul America's diet. "The analogy I think of is in the anti-smoking arena," he told Whorunsgov.com. "It took a number of years to really get the systems reoriented and established so that we prohibit smoking in public places."

As the largest of FNS's 15 nutrition assistance programs, SNAP is also the most strategic one to reorient. Will Humble, director of Arizona's Department of Health Services, envisions using SNAP to compel food retailers to carry more nutritious products. "Why is SNAP a good leverage point for changing vendor behavior?" he asks on his blog. "Because the federal government provides more than $50 [billion] in SNAP benefits every year."

FNS aims to use this leverage on purchasers as well as vendors. With its EBT system, it can now intimately monitor and potentially influence the eating habits of more than 40 million Americans. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already floated the idea of making soda off-limits for SNAP recipients. (In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied Minnesota permission to enact a similar ban.) Hank Cardello, author of Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat, thinks a more general form of gastronomic policing is the way to go. "Rather than create a modern-day Prohibition on specific foods or beverages, the food stamp program should be restructured to cap the total calories purchased each month," he writes at The Atlantic.

So far the government has shown more interest in rewarding good behavior than punishing bad. In December 2011, the FNS will start testing a "healthy incentives" program in Hampden County, Massachusetts. Participants will receive a 30 percent discount on their EBT purchases of fruits and vegetables. As coercion goes, this may qualify as pretty benign stuff. You give millions of hungry Americans money for food. And then you give them even more money if they agree to eat like upscale locavores battling Big Corn Syrup.

But locavores want to decentralize the food system in an effort to reclaim control over what goes into their bodies. SNAP is moving in the opposite direction. And as its new status as a behavior modification tool grows increasingly apparent, so too does the realization that the program's growth, commonly attributed to economic desperation, is fueled at least as much by policy imperatives. Food stamp use has hit historic highs because the government's effort to expand the program has hit historic highs. Even more than McDonald's, the feds have mastered the art of supersizing. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Franscisco.

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    1. Bebeh… the other other white meat! Bebeh… it’s what’s for DINNER!

  2. it is a total invasion of privacy to post pictures of my ex girlfriend. I have to say though, she is looking good. Boobs have gotten bigger…

  3. I hate seeing people driving cadillacs and paying with food stamp cards.

    Go back to food stamps, though, or something flashy that indicates that that person is using food stamps. It should make them feel ashamed of taking that kind of assistance.

    I remember growing up and us getting it because my step-father was a lazy prick and also would not let my mother work too long at any job. I was embarassed to be living on food stamps and similar programs.

    Stop legitimizing it! Make people ashamed so they will have the drive to better themselves and start being productive.

    1. Are you sure the shame factor isn’t more than balanced for by the sympathy factor?

      As to the upscale locavore factor, in NYC EBT purchases at farmer’s markets get a 40% bonus of coupons redeemable for produce there.

      1. Are you sure all factors aren’t considered?

  4. I’m right sexy!!

    I’m bigger than you! I’m higher on the food chain!

  5. Ack! Lobster Girl please.

  6. haha…yall are funny…but food stamps,…eh. If people have money for beer, they better have money for food.

  7. “FNS aims to use this leverage on purchasers as well as vendors. With its EBT system, it can now intimately monitor and potentially influence the eating habits of more than 40 million Americans. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already floated the idea of making soda off-limits for SNAP recipients. (In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied Minnesota permission to enact a similar ban.)”

    I think you mean “FNS has refused to allow states to use this leverage on purchasers as well as vendors.” It’s more, you know, accurate.

  8. I think the government should provide a set of staple foods instead of money. Need more assistance? Take another loaf of bread or bag of apples. Want to stock up on Pepsi and Doritos before the big game? Find some cash.

    People shouldn’t necessarily be ashamed if they need assistance, but nor should they be able to use food stamps to eat better than I do. $133 could buy a lot of gov. surplus, but many people would prefer to earn money and buy the food they want.

    1. I think the government should get the hell out of the business of robbing people and giving the money to others to buy votes and calling the whole twisted process “charity”.

      Let actual people be actually charitable and help out the less fortunate because they care, not because they’ve been mugged by government agents.

    2. I think the government should provide a set of staple foods instead of money.

      That was Bill Buckley’s idea. There were something like 5 foods he identified that together would provide a boring but nutritionally adequate diet, several of which foods were in chronic surplus, and he thought they should be given away ad lib to whoever wanted them, no questions asked. Bread and apples weren’t on the list, they were more basic & boring than that. Cheese (presumably a bland type), soybean curd, maybe cabbage, like that.

    3. Do they need the food stamp program? In Canada the Food Banks work without government providing food.

  9. I tend to agree with non, but I also think that (amazingly enough) that Bloomberg is correct in trying to ban soda sales on EBT. I recognize that there are those who need assistance, while I think giving them bags of food is better, having worked in retail it is disgusting to see people come in and buy $50 in junk food and soda and use EBT. That was never the intention. Use the program as it was intended of be kicked off, that is my opinion. Just like welfare should be run.

    1. What about the opposite sentiment, that it’d be more economic to give poor people cash, no strings attached? That used to be the policy preference of libertarians — that as long as there were to be subventions, as much as possible of it should go to the needy with freedom to spend it however they wanted, rather than to support a bureacracy — while both “liberals” and “conservatives”, even those who were not particularly authoritarian within their category, preferred managed programs.

      1. If there is to be a safety net, it should be minimal for those who really need it to stay alive, and its minimal nature should encourage people to take responsibility for themselves so that they do not need the safety net. I don’t like the social engineering behind the assistance provided, and for that reason I think direct cash may be a better idea.

      2. Why is this even remotely a good idea? I’m about as libertarian as libertarian gets, but giving the very people who haven’t the inclination, self-restraint, forethought and planning, or whatever it takes to hold down a job a pile of cash is a recipe for a bunch of starving kids whose parents spent it all on booze and cig’s (if you’re lucky) or crack (if you’re not).

  10. I count soda as a luxury item. Juice and milk? Fine. Soda? No.

    Two stories:

    A few years back I tried shopping at an “urban” supermarket because I heard the chain was in trouble and I figured that by shopping there I would help preserve supermarket access for those without transport. The store was just too grim for words. Shoplifting was rampant and nobody cared. The tipping point for me was a mother telling her young daughter to “put that [juice] back and get Koolaid” when mom had a cart full of beer.

    The good thing about EBT cards is that they’re presumably harder to abuse than food stamp coupons. Ten years ago at a seedy downtown cafe I saw someone exchange a very large stack of food stamp coupons for a much smaller stack of cash.

  11. My favorite food stamp abuse anecdote: I’m sitting in the jury duty room for the 2nd day and a young lady is eating Dove chocolate squares. She has a whole bag, so she offers them to the rest of us. A couple of ppl accept and one remarks on how she loves these, but they’re too expensive for her to buy. The chocolate giver turns to us and says, “oh, they’re too expensive for me too but I used food stamps to get these!”

    1. My favorite food stamp abuse story: I worked at a local convenience store when I was in high school, back when food stamps were actual coupons with dollar values printed on them. A woman used to go through the register and buy a 50 cent banana, use a $1 food stamp coupon, and get 50 cents in change. She would do this several times, until she had enough change to go across the street to the gas station and buy a package of cigarettes. Of course, that was back when smokes cost $3 a pack. I told my boss what she was doing, and she said there was nothing I could do, except sell her the banana and give her the change. Sick.

      My second favorite: A close relative of mine had a child when she was 19 and still living with her parents. Her parents made well over $100k combined, said relative did not hold a job, nor was she looking for one. She lived with parents, but used her boyfriend’s address to apply for WIC. Then, she would have the nerve to complain about the restrictions on what you could buy with WIC (ie- she had to buy the 16 oz. package of cheddar cheese instead of the 8 oz. package, and she could only use her coupons for gallons of milk, and not half gallons or smaller) Sick.

      1. Uh…you could’ve reported them to the agency (replete with video footage).

    2. I used to know someone whose sister-in-law would use her LoneStar card to buy nice steaks and other food items and then sell or trade them to her brother-in-law at a discount for beer and cigarette money.

  12. “Hank Cardello, author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, thinks a more general form of gastronomic policing is the way to go. “Rather than create a modern-day Prohibition on specific foods or beverages, the food stamp program should be restructured to cap the total calories purchased each month,” he writes at The Atlantic.”

    A calorie limit on FOOD stamps? The idea is to provide food=(calories) to people you idiot; not fill their belly with diet soda and splenda brownies.

  13. Good point, Trig. Also, poor people often live in poorly insulated/heated houses, or work outside; ie, they need a high caloric intake.

  14. Food stamps ? here’s my thoughts. Are we fine with people starving or trying to rob the rest of us on our way to work? Maybe they could just beg…

    How should the program be structured ? a low stipend or the gov’t telling us what we can buy?

    I would also like the program to give people as much freedom as possible. If we treat people like adults, who can make decisions, then maybe they will start acting more responsibly. Setting a list of what is forbidden to purchase ? well, then they are children spending mommy’s money. If they buy magic beans and then starve ? I at least know we tried our best.

    I view the food stamp excess stories much like the marijuana arrest stories ? really, that is who we’re worried about. Also, I see them for what they are ? a diversion to allow our “betters” to rip us off elsewhere.

    To the extent you may see these people as theives, they are the least of the bunch.

    1. Did you actually read the article? They’re not starving but they are being sold dependency. As dependency becomes more the norm I as one who carries my and my families weight must carry the free riders. If your fear is the hungry robber I would argue that promoting dependency vs responsibiliy and self reliance actually increases your risk.

      1. Plus it frees up their feral, fatherless children to join gangs and rob our homes while we’re at work. Of course, no one saw this coming in the 1960s.

  15. Yeah, I don’t see how we could effectively centrally plan the population’s calorie intake. Each person has different metabolism, daily activity level, height, etc. Totally bonkers to do this.

    On restricting soda or brownies, I’m imagining people outside of stores hitting up shoppers to work out a deal so that the shopper buys brownies while the EBT holder buys bananas and whatever, and they swap afterwards.

  16. Participants will receive a 30 percent discount on their EBT purchases of fruits and vegetables.

    Which means…the price of fruits and vegetables just went up by approximately 40M/300M * 0.30. Thanks, gubment fuckers!

  17. Oh, yeah, back before the cards, when food stamps were actual stamps, people would trade them for cash, usually for half of face value. They would also use them to buy weed, etc. again at the rate of half of face value per dollar.

  18. It’s pretty obvious that the reptilians are fattening the lower classes up to serve as a food source once their control is complete.

  19. “As coercion goes, this may qualify as pretty benign stuff”

    Fattening one’s victims only seems benign.

  20. The milk from the government’s tit is fatally tainted, and i will cheerfully starve to death before i ever take it. It hardly is ignorant pride; i just know deadly poison when i see it. Need proof? Just look at the addicted zombies who have sold their soul for a nickel in exchange for obama’s bread and circuses. There are fates worse than death, and being a vegetable in the socialists’ experimental garden is one of them.

  21. No matter how the government regulation of the economy, we eventually need their own efforts to create their own lives

  22. Christmas is coming . First happy new year in advance. Ugg boots is the best Christmas Gift . ugg boots sale Wram feet and wram heart . snowman send you a smile face . That is what the gift you will receive from Santa Claus . Also gucci shoes is still a best gift for anybody . The winter is coming means spring is not too far . Life lies in motion .Go ahead and enjoy your life .

  23. Your going to eat your ADM corn and Nutraloaf and your gonna like it!

  24. Wait, unless things have just recently changed, they DO limit what you can buy. I worked at a grocery store; there was a very strict list of what could be purchased, even going so far as not allowing brown eggs but white ones were okay (I wonder what Freud would say to that). And it never changed anything; the wife would simply wait in line with eggs, bread, milk, etc, and have the government buy it, while the husband was in the next line with beer, pop, ice cream, frozen dinners, and so on. All this does is subsidize part of a family’s food budget; anyone who thinks that if people are given enough free, healthy food, they will refrain from spending their own money (which they have more of, thanks to the subsidy) on junk food has no experience with the matter.

  25. BWM: I think you’re thinking of WIC, not SNAP.

  26. People on food stamps spend more than most people I know spend on their food a month. All of these people on foodstamps likely also send their kids to school for free breakfast, lunch and now dinner. So tell me again why we give them food stamps if we are feeding them 3 times a day? What does the parent have to do exactly? Nothing that I can tell. Simply screw and breed, someone else will be along to pay for it all.

    They should be called the BURDEN TO SOCIETY CARD and anytime they use it the cashier should have to get on the intercom and let everyone in the story know. Then the person getting the free food should have to thank everyone in the store over the intercom for their free food.

    We need to make the receiving of freebies humiliating at the least. Hunger and Humiliation are strong motivators. Giving someone more and more for nothing not so much.

  27. I have to say, Coupons have played a major role in my life in a positive way.

  28. Coupons are a way of life for many people these days. Without them, many families would go under each week trying to feed their families.

  29. Coupons are a life savor for many

  30. How about mbt kisumu sandals this one: there are X driving deaths a year- what % of driving deaths (or serious injuries) involve alcohol, or other intoxicating substances? kisumu 2 People are pretty darn good drivers when they are not impaired.

  31. Either way, municipal order will collapse in the big cities. Whether the cities go bankrupt and lay off the cops, or hyperinflation or credit freeze cause loss of tax revenue, furloughed and overworked cops will quit or retire. ???? ????? ??? ???????
    Maybe Glenn Beck isn’t so crazy. Seems like a perfect Cloward/Piven storm engineered by socialists in our government, which will finally begin causing ruination of capitalism and the attendant chaos, depression, and eventually, civil insurgent war.
    ???? ????? ??? ???????

    Will you be prepared when the shit hits the fan? Better be ready to strap up, becasue when the welfare runs out, they will come to the burbs.

    Great thanks

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