The next time you’re unloading your cart at the grocery store, take a good look at what you’re putting on the conveyor belt.
If the “healthy food police” were judging your choices, would you get an A?
But, then again, nobody is judging your food choices.
Unless, you’re using an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, formerly known as food stamps.
Americans above the poverty level who pay their own way are often critical when it comes to judging people who use food stamps.
But those critics might not even be aware of what people can and can’t buy with an EBT card.
You’d think fast food would be off limits while diapers and medicine would be allowed.
Turns out, you’d be wrong.
And if you think people who use EBT cards purchase vastly different food items than the rest of us… you might be wrong again.
A brief history of food stamps
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It has been around since the 1970s with the goal of helping low-income individuals and families purchase food.
SNAP administers the EBT program.
The EBT cards work like debit cards, although no actual dollars are exchanged.
As of January 2016, 45.4 million Americans receive SNAP benefits and purchase allowable items such as bread, cereal, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products.
EBT cards cannot be used for beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, tobacco, vitamins, medicine, diapers, pet food, soap, paper products, household supplies, hot food, and food that will be eaten in the store.
According to demographic data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 39.8 percent of SNAP participants are white, 25.5 percent are African-American, 10.9 percent are Hispanic, 2.4 percent are Asian and 1 percent are Native American.
“Race unknown” accounts for the remaining 20.4 percent.
The average food stamp benefit is $126.39 per person per month and the allotment is meant to supplement food costs, not completely cover them.
SNAP recipients are expected to kick in their own money for groceries.
Who buys what?
Some studies indicate that SNAP recipients are more likely to be overweight than people who don’t use food stamps.
However, other research indicates that America’s obesity problem spans all income levels.
A 2016 USDA study that collected data on grocery shopping by 26 million households reported that SNAP and non-SNAP families bought similar items.
About 40 cents for every food dollar went to purchase meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and bread.
About 20 cents went toward sweetened drinks, salty snacks, candy, and desserts.
The remaining 40 cents was spent on cereal, prepared foods, rice, beans, and other cooking ingredients.
In other words, just as many middle class and rich people fill their grocery cart with junk food as do poor people.
Food stamps at fast food restaurants
If critics are quick to judge shopping carts of SNAP recipients, just imagine the hue and cry over the use of SNAP benefits in fast food restaurants, our country’s notoriously unhealthy dining establishments.
The fact that some states allow EBT recipients to use their benefits at the likes of McDonalds and Pizza Hut sends some people into a lather of indignation.
Like every issue, all is not black and white.
Each state has the authority to determine whether or not food stamps can be used in fast food restaurants under the Restaurant Meals Program.
According to Tony Craddock Jr., program analyst with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, only California, Arizona, Florida, and Rhode Island allow EBT to be used in fast food restaurants.
Arizona and California’s programs are statewide while Florida and Rhode Island limit the program to only one county.
Under those programs, there are no restrictions on what menu items can be purchased with EBT cards.
However, the only people who can use their EBT cards at fast food restaurants are the elderly, disabled, or homeless.
What is the rationale for permitting EBT to be used at fast food restaurants?
It sounds counter intuitive to allow people who are possibly unhealthy or malnourished to eat “junk food,” but supporters say if you step back for a moment, the practicality of it becomes clear.
Homeless people do not have a kitchen, stove, refrigerator, or any way to prepare grocery items.
It can also be difficult for disabled and elderly people to shop and prepare their meals.
What can be done to encourage SNAP recipients to make healthy food choices?
Education is key and the SNAP program, civic minded tech companies, and budget-minded chefs are all onboard.
SNAP-Ed uses social marketing campaigns, holds nutrition education classes, encourages physical activity, and helps SNAP participants stretch their food budget through online publications such as “Eat Right When Money’s Tight.”
Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy is a SNAP-produced meal planning and shopping program that includes menus, recipes, and sample food budgets.
Fresh EBT, a free app available on Google Play and Apple iTunes, was developed by the software company Propel. It locates stores that accept EBT and helps SNAP users create a grocery list and budget. It also tracks EBT deposits and balance.
A Massachusetts’ program called the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) credits back 30 cents for every dollar SNAP users spend on fruits and vegetables toward the purchase of more fruits and vegetables.
The state reports that healthy food consumption has risen by 25 percent.
Good and Cheap is a free online cookbook written by Leanne Brown that builds healthy meals around a $4 per person, per day budget.
The recipes use staples like beans and rice as well as canned vegetables, garlic, and butter.
To date, more than 200,000 people have downloaded Brown’s book.