Bipartisan report: SNAP should not pay for sugar-sweetened beverages
March 12, 2018
Congress should no longer allow participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to buy sugar-sweetened beverages with their benefits, according to a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center to be released March 11.
"While SNAP has been incredibly successful at reducing food insecurity, our nation faces high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and high health care costs. We cannot move the needle on our nation's obesity epidemic — which leads to so many chronic medical conditions — if we don't consider all possible policy levers to promote better diets and access to healthy foods," said the co-chairs of the task force that wrote the report.
The report was a nine-month effort by 13 task force members that included national health, public health, and social service policy experts and administrators. The task force was chaired by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Dan Glickman, an agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, and Ann Veneman, an agriculture secretary in the George W. Bush administration.
In a call to reporters on Friday, Frist said that the task force's overall purppose "is to shine a light on the 40 million people being affected" by their food purchases under SNAP.
Frist noted that there are indications that SNAP beneficiaries have worse diets than people who are not on SNAP, and Jerold Mande, a Tufts University professor who previously worked on SNAP at USDA, noted that a study of SNAP purchases at one grocery store chain indicated that sugar-sweetened beverages were the top item that beneficiaries bought.
Frist also noted that 62 percent of all adult Medicaid recipients are on SNAP "so it was clear we should focus on nutrition and try to lower health care costs."
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But Frist and other co-chairs emphasized that the task force supports SNAP and that, while the recommendations would result in some savings, the task force's work was not a budget exercise but an attempt to achieve improvements in nutrition and reductions in diet-related disease.
Veneman pointed out that, while the name of the program had been changed from food stamps to SNAP, the nutrition part of the name had not been emphasized.
Glickman added that food stamps and SNAP have been focused "on food security and program integrity," and that diet quality should be an equal objective.
On the call to reporters, Glickman, a Democrat, acknowledged that until now he has agreed with anti-hunger groups that argue SNAP beneficiaries should have the right to choose their foods just as other Americans do.
But he said, "Since this is a federal program, it is appropriate to look at all the nutrition parts of the program."
There is an abundance of scientific literature that shows sweetened beverages have more of a detrimental effect on health than any other single food, Glickman said.
While the ban on purchases of sweetened beverages is likely to be the most controversial recommendation, Glickman noted that the report contains other recommendations, half of them on SNAP.
The other SNAP recommendations include:
Continuing fruit and vegetable incentives.
Collecting SNAP purchasing snap data at the store level and sharing it with state governments.
Strengthening SNAP retail standards so that stores offer healthy foods.
Establishing a waiver process so states can share information on Medicaid and SNAP.
Veneman said it is "imperative" to link Medicaid and SNAP. Budget estimates show level spending for SNAP over the next 10 years, but the cost of Medicaid will climb.
Frist noted that the task force did not focus on the House Republicans' proposed work requirements, and that it completed its work before the Trump budget proposed sending SNAP participants boxes of food rather than letting them shop in grocery stores.
"Our panel took a nuanced approach focused on improving a program that already works," Frist said.
Glickman noted that there has been no research on the food box proposal, but that it would be difficult to distribute fruits and vegetables in the boxes. "It seems to be a budget proposal," he concluded.