I’ll state right up front I don’t know much about how the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known for providing food stamps, works. I’m privileged and fortunate enough not to have to rely on it, and I wish that was the case for everyone.
I read a column this week, though, that really got my hackles up. Matthew Boyle went around testing out an Electronic Benefit Transfer card to find out exactly what he could buy with it. Turns out he could spend more than $100 at Whole Foods, and another $100 on candy at CVS. He seems outraged at the lack of regulation over his purchases. He doesn’t think people should be able to purchase junk food with EBT cards. Yes, ideally people would buy fresh foods and whole grains with their cards, but how does he expect that to work? Anything that has too much sugar gets a bar code that’s automatically rejected?
He lists as other things currently legal to buy under SNAP:
- Limes for Coronas or other Mexican beers
- Soda water or tonic water for mixed drinks
- Coke for Jack and Cokes
- Drink mixers, as long they have an FDA nutrition label on them and don’t have alcohol in them
- Appetizers from the frozen food section
- Chips, salsa, cheese, and crackers
- Red Bull for Jager-bombs
- Jell-O to make Jell-O shots
- Any other snack product
- Gatorade for nursing the next day’s hangover
- Egg Nog (for Egg Nog and Brandy mixed drinks during the holidays)
He gives these as examples of what unscrupulous college students could do with certain food items—and seems oblivious to their other uses. If I buy a lime, I’m using it either in salsa or a dessert. And salsa is actually pretty good for you, especially if it’s homemade. Why would appetizers be banned just because they could be used to host a party? FYI, most people don’t buy Jell-O to make Jell-O shots. My mom loves it as a side dish. Gatorade makes a good hangover cure because it replenishes electrolytes—hardly the kind of ingredients that should prompt the government to ban it from SNAP.
In short, Boyle seems focused only on finding ways to abuse the system and not on the ways SNAP actually helps millions. I’m pretty confident the majority of people depending on it don’t throw keggers every weekend. Just because Boyle can waste money on nonessential food doesn’t mean everyone can. And considering the number of people in this country who don’t have food security (14 percent, or 17 million households, in 2008), I almost don’t care if they spend their benefits on junk food as long as they have food, period.