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SHOCKER: The number one item Food Stamps used for is…

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The pages of the New York Times are just about the last place you’d expect to find a story about food stamp waste and abuse, but even they couldn’t deny the facts. They could ignore them for two months however, finally reporting on a U.S. Department of Agriculture study on food stamp (now known as SNAP) usage published back in mid-November.

So what’s the number one item that food stamp dollars are going too? Anyone with stock in Coca Cola and Pepsi will be pleased, as the answer is simple: one heck of a lot of soda.

Via the New York Times

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The United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the $74 billion food stamp program called SNAP, has published a detailed report that provides a glimpse into the shopping cart of the typical household that receives food stamps.

The findings show that the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which accounted for 5 percent of the dollars they spent on food. The category of ‘sweetened beverages,’ which includes fruit juices, energy drinks and sweetened teas, accounted for almost 10 percent of the dollars they spent on food. “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s pretty shocking.”

For years, dozens of cities, states and medical groups have urged changes to SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to help improve nutrition among the 43 million poorest Americans who receive food stamps. Specifically, they have called for restrictions so that food stamps cannot be used to buy junk food or sugary soft drinks.

But the food and beverage industries have spent millions opposing such measures, and the U.S.D.A. has denied every request, saying that selectively banning certain foods would be unfair to food stamp users and create too much red tape.

Here’s the breakdown:

snap

Note that the expenditures listed are those tracked by the study – not total expenditures.

The U.S.D.A. report found that milk, cheese, potato chips, beef, cold cereal and baked bread were among the top purchases for all households. It indicated that all Americans bought ample amounts of desserts, salty snacks, candy and other junk foods. But the SNAP households spent slightly less money on nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds.

Over all, the report found, SNAP households spent about 40 cents of every dollar at the grocery store on “basic items” like meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and bread. Another 40 cents of every dollar was spent on “cereal, prepared foods, dairy products, rice and beans.” Lastly, 20 cents of each dollar was spent on a broad category of junk foods that included “sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.”

SNAP households spent 9.3 percent of their grocery budgets on sweetened beverages alone, not including soft drinks. That was slightly higher than the 7.1 percent figure for households that do not receive food stamps.

Note however that part of the reason food stamp recipients aren’t spending as much on nutritious foods is because nutritious foods are simply more expensive than junk food. On the other hand, less money spent on soda would free up some dollars. However, Pepsi has lobbied the federal government to prevent restriction on food stamps in 2011,2012, and 2013, while Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods lobbied against a bill in Florida in 2012 that would’ve banned food stamp spending on soda and junk food.

What do you all think should be done? Keep in mind that the solution here isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand and banning food stamp purchases on certain items. The federal government would need to hire hundreds (perhaps thousands) of individuals to sort through hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of items to determine whether or not they’re food stamp eligible.

Of course, don’t put it past the government to decide to slap a nationwide high tax on soft drinks to discourage purchase (look how well that worked for cigarettes).

[Note: This post was authored by Matt Palumbo. Follow him on Twitter @MattPalumbo12

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