Which is why we shouldn’t tell them what to buy.
The Dollar General in Austin’s gritty northeast—the neighborhood where I grew up—is a squat, warehouselike structure about twice the size of a suburban convenience store. Amid the dull flicker of fluorescent lights and the grinding hum of a compressor struggling to power a long freezer case, I’m in search of affordable and nutritious food with Melissa Helber, social-services outreach supervisor of a local food bank. The pickings are slim: We wander past two-liter jugs of Dr Pepper at the incredible price of four for $5; value-size boxes of Chocolate Lucky Charms cereal, $3.50; a wall of bagged candy, $1 each. Helber says the prices are why many of her clients shop here: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, is stingy (about $11 a day for a family of three around here), but it’s relatively open on how recipients spend their benefits. It bans alcohol and “hot food”—say, a rotisserie chicken—but almost everything you could find in Dollar General’s grocery section, from sodas to M&M’s, is fair game.
If you’re wondering why SNAP would subsidize junk food, you’re not alone. Recently, the program has been in the headlines mostly because of Republican efforts to slash benefits. But even among its supporters, there has been a growing movement to rethink how the benefit is targeted. In a 2012 report, a high-profile group of nutrition researchers urged the US Department of Agriculture to run pilot programs to test the effect of banning junk food from SNAP purchases (PDF). In a June 2013 letter to Congress, a group of mayors, including Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Newark’s Cory Booker (now the junior senator from New Jersey), echoed that call.
The argument has undeniable appeal: Why should the already-frayed federal safety net underwrite Coca-Cola’s balance sheet? But the junk-food industry has fought hard to maintain the status quo, lobbying heavily against attempts to impose limits.