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Food stamp guidelines are deliberately vague (or, why can food stamp clients buy “junk food”?)

The Monroe on a Budget column runs Mondays in The Monroe Evening News. Here is this week’s column, which is already sparking discussions on our web site and Facebook page:

Last week, a reader stopped by the newsroom and insisted on speaking to a reporter about a government policy that he was angry about.

Is it possible, as he saw on a sign in a carry-out, that food stamps can be used to purchase energy drinks?

The answer is yes. It took me just a couple of minutes to find a link I’ve posted on Monroe on a Budget from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding what purchases are allowed, and which ones are not allowed, on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Because the reader wanted to complain that energy drinks should not be allowed based on nutrition value, I directed him to his Congressman’s office.

But I told him, “You are not the first person to ask this question.”

Nor is that the only question people have had about what items are allowed.

In comparison to the list of allowable foods on the Women Infants Children program, and the menu guidelines that apply to the National School Lunch Program, there is plenty of room for interpretation on what food stamps can be used for. And in response to repeated questions on that matter, the USDA has on its web site an 11-page report from in March 2007 that discussed restricting food stamp purchases away from junk food and more toward “healthy” food.

The problem, as the USDA explained, is this:

“No clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.”

The hurdle is in analyzing more than 300,000 food products that are available in the U.S. for a yes-no declaration, and then expecting retailers to have cash registers or knowledgeable clerks who can interpret that list. The complications include the fact that a particular food might be appropriate to one consumer because of a low sugar content, but the fat content may not be healthy for someone else.

Interestingly enough, the report cited a study that food stamp clients are less likely than people of higher income brackets to consume sweets or salty snacks.

There are efforts to encourage low-income people to eat healthy on a budget. For example, the Cooking Matters and Shopping Matters classes, which are available locally, teach budget-friendly menu ideas and recipes. And the Double Up Food Bucks program, of which Monroe and Dundee Farmers’ Markets are among the participants, allows food stamp clients to get twice the produce for their “money”.

But what happens when allowable foods change before people make their own choices?

The answer could be seen this fall when school children had mixed reactions to unfamiliar foods on the school lunch menus.

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