$16 Billion in Food Stamps Slow Farm Bill

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 9:51 AM

Studying Food Stamp Purchases Using Receipts
Food Stamps Are Going to Waist

Main findings from $997.16 in store receipts analyzed:

• 28% spent in full-service grocery stores was for sweetened beverages, snacks, chips, and candy

• Nationally $16-25 billion of total $77 billion food stamp spending could be for sweetened beverages such as soda, Red Bull, Gatorade, Gushers, Sobe, Capri Sun, Lipton Iced Tea and Frappuccino

Brand name, national brand soda 87%
Discount and store brand soda 13%

Advocates for food stamps say that food stamp participants choose fattening things like pop because they have to stretch their dole dollars, to maximize caloric content on their limited budget. Advocates call this calorie-mining. If this were true, program participants would choose cheaper store brand sodas. Participants mostly don’t; advocates are wrong.

Sweetened beverages purchased: $139.33 14% of $997, (bearing in mind that these purchases were in full-service grocery stores; no convenience stores were in the sample.)
Water and milk purchased: $31.36 3% of $997
Recipients purchase sweetened beverages 4.5 times as often as water and milk.

Snacks, chips, and candy purchased: $143.09 14% of $997

Add sweetened beverages, candy, chips, and snacks together. 28% of food stamp purchases, in these full-service grocery stores, are for these deleterious, non-nutritional items-one hardly dares to call them foods. This fact refutes the food desert argument, which is that food stamp participants buy unhealthy foods because they do not have full-service grocery stores available in their neighborhoods.

Steaks and other cuts of meats: $58.79
Hamburger: $31.38
(Only one or two instances of steak. This somewhat mutes the complaint observers have about food stamp recipients eating steaks and lobster that the rest of us have to ration.)

Educating Recipients to Make Healthy Choices

Government programs, like SNAP Education, to persuade food stamp recipients to buy fruits and vegetables, are not working. Desist funding them. Save $120 million per year.

Leafy green vegetables purchased: none.
One bag of Fresh Express Cole Slaw was purchased for $1.79.

Raw vegetables and fruit purchased: $43.69 4.3%
Contrast this with $143.09 spent on snacks, chips and candy, and $139.33 on sweetened beverages, for a total of $282.42.
How does this compare to the average shopping basket of American shoppers at grocery stores? I have a message in with Richard Volpe of USDA ERS at 202-694-5050 to find a source for shopping basket statistics.
$8.88 of the $997 was for potatoes, a commendable, sturdy, staple food.
Bananas, blueberries and oranges were the only fruits purchased.

How much did recipients purchase of peanut butter, tuna, rice, flour and other baking supplies, dried pasta products, beans or lentils? None. These staples are inexpensive sources of nutrition. These are the items that families have always relied on to stretch their food dollars. Recipients appear not to have to stretch their dole dollars.

How much dried pasta product was purchased? None, except $4.97 was spent on boxed macaroni and cheese and bagged ramen.

How much hot cereal was purchased? None. This is the most energy-rich way to stretch breakfast dollars and would be observed if calorie-mining was occurring.
Sugary cereal purchased: $20.71.

Ready-to-microwave food items, take-and-bake pizza, and jerky totaled $62.08.
(Some of the line items’ abbreviations were obscure so this tally may be low.)
Ready-to-eat foods were absolutely preferred over ingredients requiring more than the simplest preparation. Items requiring boiling or baking or even making a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich were not seen on the receipts.

Now that we have examined categories of spending by food stamp recipients, and conclude that purchases are for tasty and convenient foods that are low in nutritive value, and now that we have dispelled the “calorie-mining” and “food deserts” excuses for why food stamp recipients are gaining weight faster than the general population, we turn the focus to sweetened beverages.

Three estimates of total spent, nationwide, on sweetened beverages through SNAP

Estimate 1:

USDA Secretary Vilsak writes that 15% of SNAP goes through convenience stores. About 85% would then go through grocery stores, ignoring the relatively few restaurant and home delivery purchases made.

Annual spending in SNAP is $77 billion.
Hunch: 85% of food stamp spending in convenience stores may be for sweetened beverages. Until convenience stores provide data on purchases, a hunch will suffice.

Grocery stores: 14% of 85% of $77 billion= $9.16 billion
Convenience stores: 85% of 15% of $77 billion= $9.81 billion
Estimate 1: Total national SNAP spending on sweetened beverages= $18.97 billion

In Maryland, 72% of SNAP benefits are spent in supermarkets. Maybe Sec. Vilsak was saying that 15% of outlets serving the food stamp program were convenience stores, not 15% of purchases. If 72% is true across the nation, the $18.97 billion estimate would be low.

Estimate 2:

Shenkin and Jacobson quote a study where 6.19% of the grocery bills of SNAP participants was for carbonated drinks, a smaller category than sweetened beverages. When he spoke with Dr. Shenkin, he said only the number was available to him. He got it from a large grocery chain and they were not willing to be cited or reveal their data, out of concern for media and government pushback.

Carbonated drinks in my $997 sample were $70.26 of the $139.33 for all sweetened beverages, or 50%.

Double Shenkin’s 6.19% and you get 12.38% for total sweetened beverages, fairly close to my 14% finding.

Dr. Jonathan Shenkin is at 207-947-6733. He’s a pediatric dentist and collaborates with CSPI.

If we use 12.38% and Massachusetts’ store/convenience store figure of 72%/28%, we get:

12.38% of 72% of $77 billion= $6.86 billion
85% of 28% of $77 billion = $18.33 billion
Estimate 2: Total $25.18 billion for sweetened beverages. That’s a lot of waist.
$25 billion/$77 billion= 32.5% SNAP purchases for sweetened beverages.
That would be $532 for each of the 47 million SNAP recipients. $0 spent on oatmeal.

Estimate 3:
I asked a convenience store clerk in Belgrade February 22nd if he estimated the majority of food stamp purchases there were for beverages. He thought about 50-50, beverages and cold deli, such as sandwiches. A clerk in Billings thought a little less than half was for beverages, more ready-to-microwave foods and cold deli items.

If we say 45% of convenience store purchases are for sweet beverages and use the Massachusetts split between store types, we get:
12.38% of 72% of $77 billion= $6.86 billion
45% of 28% of $77 billion= $9.7 billion
Estimate 3: Total $16.56 billion of total SNAP spending for sweet beverages, or 22%.

Three estimates:
$16.56, $18.97 or $25.18 billion SNAP spending on sweetened beverages annually.

The End

Terms: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

Studying my second sample, a total of $1,681.91 in food stamp purchases, I found 7.8% of SNAP purchases were for sweetened beverages. We deserve more data from store receipts nationwide in order to understand the extent of spending on various items by program recipients.

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