Legislating Food Choice: Food Stamps & Obesity

January 4, 2013

Obesity rates have skyrocketed in the United States in recent years.  The Center for Disease Control has made a great deal of statistical information available.  Here,  we learn that more than a third of adults are categorized as obese.  While studies have not found a significant difference in obesity rates among men of different income levels, socioeconomic status does seem to play a part in the obesity rates of women. Women living at lower income levels, and with lower education levels are more likely to be obese (though most obese women are not necessarily low income).

The food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has been made a target for many who desire to address this growing issue.  One proposed change was to simply pay SNAP funds twice per month instead of once per month.  The idea is that this kind of program might encourage users to shop more frequently, and better spread the money out over the course of a month.   This way, SNAP participants aren’t running out of money at the end of the month, and then literally shopping on an empty stomach when they receive funds again the next month.

One of the more well publicized suggestions is to restrict the types of foods that can be purchased with SNAP funds. In 2010, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg requested a two year moratorium on the ability to purchase sugary drinks with federal SNAP funds in NYC. Read the old New York Times.com Op-Ed on Westlaw here: 10/7/10 NYTIMESCOM 39. 

The USDA ultimately rejected Bloomberg’s request, indicating that it would be too difficult to put such restrictions into effect. The U.S. Department of Agriculture explained that it would be “impossibly complex” to determine what foods should be banned. (See 2011 WLNR 20052397) Other critics of the proposal argue that restricting the foods you can buy with SNAP funds stigmatizes recipients.

SURVEY OF LEGISLATION

For current legislation, I ran the following search in all jurisdictions on WestlawNext:

restrict limit healthy food SNAP food stamps

My first result for Proposed & Enacted Legislation is a Mississippi bill that aims to direct the Department of Human Services to limit use of SNAP funds to the purchase of “healthy food and healthy beverage only.” 2012 MS S.B. 2293 (NS),  TITLE: S.N.A.P. (food stamp) purchases; direct DHS to limit to healthy food and beverages.

My next few results are more focused on addressing issues of fraud in relation to SNAP benefits. But, there’s also notice the following result from Pennsylvania: 2011 PA H.R. 59 (NS), TITLE: A Resolution memorializing the Congress of the United States to take action to safeguard the health of families who are eligible for food stamps by changing the way the Food Stamps Program is regulated.

This alternative advanced search delivered good results…

S.N.A.P. “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” /p obesity

including…

2011 NC H.B. 975 (NS), North Carolina House Bill, Titled: Promote Local/Healthy Food. Summary: AN ACT to work toward decreasing obesity among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Participants by Increasing their participation in supplemental nutrition assistance program education (SNAP-ED) and Making fresh, locally grown produce available by increasing the acceptance of electronic BENEFITS TRANSFER (EBT) CARDS AT FARMERS MARKETS AND FOOD CO-OPS.

2011 IL H.B. 1399 (NS), Illinois House Bill, Title: DHS-FOOD STAMPS-CHILD OBESITY. Summary: Amends the Illinois Public Aid Code. Provides that in an effort to control the epidemic of childhood obesity, the Secretary of Human Services may seek a waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture to allow the State to specify certain foods that may and may not be purchased in Illinois with the benefits funded by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly the Food Stamps Program). Requires the Secretary to consult with members of the General Assembly in developing the waiver and to obtain approval from the General Assembly before implementing the waiver.

2011 CA S.B. 471 (NS), California Senate Bill, Titled: CalFresh. This bill proposed to “prohibit recipients of CalFresh from purchasing with CalFresh benefits sweetened beverages containing more than 10 calories per cup, except that CalFresh benefits would be authorized to be used to purchase juice without added sugar, milk products, and milk substitutes, even if sweetened.”

On that last search, only one of the Proposed and Enacted Legislation results was actually a bill that was enacted, a Massachusetts  appropriation for obesity prevention and education.  The rest were proposed.

I’ve noticed at my local Farmer’s Markets that vendors will take SNAP benefits. I wonder how many results I would get in actual enacted legislation mentioning SNAP and farmer’s markets or food co-operatives. I want to open my search up now though, to include legislation from previous years. From the home page on WestlawNext, I click on “Proposed & Enacted Legislation.” Next, on the right hand side of the screen, under “Tools & Resources,” I click on Historical Enacted Legislation (Session Laws).

Now, I run a search in all historical enacted legislation (federal and state):

S.N.A.P. “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” /250 “farmers market” (food /3 co-op!)

I get 5 federal results, and 4 state results. They include:

PUBLIC AID–FARMERS’ MARKET–TECHNOLOGY IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM, 2010 Ill. Legis. Serv. P.A. 96-1088 (H.B. 4756) (WEST) – Legislation aimed to increase access to fresh produce and other quality food products by allowing the program participants to redeem SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets. The legislation allows program funding to be used for purchasing or renting wireless terminals capable of processing SNAP benefits.

HEALTHY FOOD RETAIL ACT, 2009 La. Sess. Law Serv. Act 252 (S.B. 299) (WEST) – Louisiana legislation created to “provide for a financing program to stimulate investment in healthy food retail outlets in underserved areas of Louisiana…”

FOOD, CONSERVATION, AND ENERGY ACT OF 2008, PL 110–234, May 22, 2008, 122 Stat 923 – Discusses a pilot project to evaluate health and nutrition promotion in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This can include projects to increase access to farmers markets through electronic redemption of SNAP benefits.

We can see a few ways here that legislators are attempting to address the obesity crisis, some controversial, like limiting the types of foods that can be purchased by SNAP recipients, and others arguably less so, like making it easier for recipients to utilize their benefits at farmers’ markets.

ADDITIONAL RESEARCH REFERENCES

The searches above also deliver these secondary sources:

Michael Correll, “Getting Fat on Government Cheese: The Connection Between Social Welfare Participation, Gender, and Obesity in America,” 18 Duke J. Gender L. & Pol’y 45 (2010)

Joan R. Rothenberg, “In Search of the Silver Bullet: Regulatory Models to Address Childhood Obesity,” 65 Food & Drug L.J. 185 (2010)

Katherine Pratt, “A Constructive Critique of Public Health Arguments for Antiobesity Soda Taxes and Food Taxes,” 87 Tul. L. Rev. 73 (2012)

Colin Hector, “Nudging Towards Nutrition? Soft Paternalism and Obesity-Related Reform,” 67 Food & Drug L.J. 103 (2012)

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