WASHINGTON — Nicole Blakey says she can’t stand watching other people buy junk food with the government-issued food-stamp debit cards she’s used to raise three children while earning $9 an hour at a dry cleaner.
“It makes me sick when you see people at the store, and they have 12-packs of pop,” the 37-year-old Columbus, Ohio, resident, said in a telephone interview. Taxpayers “would probably be more supportive of the program” if people weren’t allowed to buy unhealthy items, she said.
That view is being defied by an unusual alliance of food producers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, libertarians and advocates for the poor who are thwarting efforts to require recipients to buy healthy items with their food stamp benefits as Congress debates reauthorizing the law that governs the program.
Obesity “is a complex health condition that affects Americans of all income levels,” said Chris Gindlesperger, public affairs director for the American Beverage Association, a trade group in Washington that includes Coca-Cola and opposes restricting food purchases under food stamps. Targeting struggling families that rely on food stamps, he said “will not make America healthier or reduce government spending.”
Subsidies for food purchased at retailers including Wal-Mart, Target and Kroger reached a record $75.2 billion in 2012. More than one in seven Americans, 47.7 million, used the program in August, the most recent month available, according to Agriculture Department data. Obesity increased to a record 27.2 percent of the adult U.S. population in 2013, up from 26.2 percent in 2012. The rate was 31.6 percent among people with incomes below $30,000.
Food stamps can’t be used to buy alcohol or tobacco or household supplies, pet foods and hot meals, while snacks and high-calorie energy drinks are permitted. Recipients spent as much as $2.1 billion a year on sugar-sweetened beverages and were more likely to buy sugary sodas than recipients of other government food aid who had to pay for such goods out of their own pockets, a Yale University study found last year.
Agribusiness is the 11th-ranked sector in lobbying, according to the Center of Responsive Politics in Washington, with spending this year of more than $111 million. Food processors and retailers are the biggest contributor to the segment, spending $28.1 million. While health lobbying is a larger overall sector, its efforts are concentrated in pharmaceuticals and medical care.
Separating foods deemed unhealthy from other products would be a nightmare, involving the government in debates over whether higher-sugar, lower-sodium Post Foods Shredded Wheat is healthier than low-sugar, high-sodium varieties, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview last month.
The Agriculture Department has rejected requests from Minnesota and New York City to impose dietary restrictions on food stamps used in those jurisdictions, saying the proposals were too broad and unworkable.
Eighteen mayors, including those of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, in June sent congressional leaders a letter asking for restrictions, asking for a chance to “test and evaluate choices” limiting food-stamp subsidies for sugary sodas. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is the majority owner of the parent company of Bloomberg News, Bloomberg LP. He championed a measure to limit sales of sugary soft drinks to no more than 16 ounces (454 grams) a serving in the city, a plan that was rejected by a judge and is being appealed to New York state’s high court.
Plans to trim food-stamp spending are being debated in a House-Senate committee crafting a new five-year agriculture law. Tougher nutrition guidelines did not make it into either chambers’ version of the bill that are being reconciled.
The beverage association, PepsiCo, Mars and the Snack Food Association, a lobbying group including convenience- foods manufacturers such as Frito-Lay, Inc., all were registered to lobby on a stand-alone food-stamp bill the House of Representatives passed in September, along with anti-poverty groups including the Food Research and Action Center. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which includes food stamps, is traditionally part of the farm bill, though the House broke it off as a separate measure this year.
Pepsi did not respond to a request for comment, while Mars referred questions to the Grocer Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents both companies.
“Education and incentives — not punitive bans, taxes and restrictions - are the way to encourage healthful food purchases,” said Louis Finkel, a lobbyist for the Washington- based group, in an email. The industry is voluntarily proposing lower-calorie items as a way to fight obesity, he said.
“‘Nutrition’ is in the name of the program,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “Let’s help people eat healthier diets. Let’s not allow soda and candy.”
Diet limitations to the program stall first because of food-company lobbying and second because the issue scrambles normal political coalitions, said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University.
Anti-hunger advocates fear that changing nutrition standards will be used to justify budget cuts, and nutritionists find themselves allied with food-stamp program opponents whose motives they may not trust, she said. Meanwhile, conservatives outraged by people eating junk food at government expense find themselves opposed by libertarians alarmed at federal intrusion into food choices, she said.
“The politics are complicated. Nobody wants to talk about what you could seriously do against obesity,” she said.
The USDA already limits food choices in other initiatives. The Women, Infants & Children program commonly called WIC, which served 8.9 million people cost $6.8 billion in the 2012 fiscal year, has strict dietary guidelines. The federal school lunch program, which last year served free or reduced-price meals to 32 million children, implemented new rules in 2012 to cut calories and combat childhood obesity.
Those initiatives are different in that they’re geared toward children, said Barbara Laraia, a nutrition professor at the University of California Berkeley. “You have a captive audience in those programs, while the SNAP program is a cash transfer,” she said. Government rules have only a limited effect on diet in any case, she said. “It’s hard to motivate people to eat differently,” she said.
Dietary restrictions would slow down grocery store operations as sellers have to ensure compliance, said Jennifer Hatcher, a lobbyist with the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based group representing Wal-Mart, Supervalu and other food retailers.
“There are definitely technological challenges, and the biggest challenge is specificity,” she said. “You can’t just snap your fingers and make this happen.”
Arguments that grocery stores couldn’t handle SNAP restrictions aren’t credible, said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who introduced a bill in September that would apply the WIC food restrictions to food stamps. Grocers already have the technology to “know exactly what we can buy” and can use the same codes to track eligible purchases, he said.
Some reform is going to be needed to maintain support for the program, which erodes every time a grocery consumer sees unhealthy food being purchased with a SNAP card, said Roe, a obstetrician/gynecologist.
“People would see that it is going to food that’s healthier,” he said. “The junk food people will be mad at me over this, but we can do better than what we’re doing now.”
Rather than limit choices, the USDA is trying to nudge aid recipients toward healthier options by giving bonus cash to reward purchases of fruit and vegetables.
The project, which cost $20 million, has been supplemented by nutrition-education programs. Boosting aid to steer healthier diets is backed by anti-hunger advocates who say restrictive approaches imply that poorer people can’t make good decisions.
“There’s a basic question of dignity and freedom here,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Washington-based Bread for the World, in an interview. “Poverty is undignified. It’s not that SNAP beneficiaries are eating a lot more chips than the rest of us. We all eat too many chips in this country.”