National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

There is a good argument for making a "healthy-living" grocery list for food stamp recipients. Why should people on food stamps buy products with a NuVal rating of 1 (ahem, Little Debbie swiss rolls) when they could be buying fresh oranges, NuVal rating of 100? 

The idea of putting tighter controls on food stamp purchases has been around for a while, but it has been successfully resisted by corporate food interests and anti-hunger advocates.

A first step to reform would simply be knowledge of what food people purchase now with taxpayer-funded food stamp benefits.

Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics of San Francisco, has issued this 28-page report called "Food Stamps, Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?" The report has drawn coverage from The Huffington Post, Reuters, and The Atlantic.

From a June 12 press release about the report:

Are food stamps lining the pockets of the nation’s wealthiest corporations instead of closing the hunger gap in the United States? Why does Walmart benefit from more than $200 million in annual food stamp purchases in Oklahoma alone? Why does one bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, hold exclusive contracts in 24 states to administer public benefits?

Right now, Congress is debating the farm bill, including significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Much attention has focused on how agricultural subsidies fuel our cheap, unhealthy food supply. In reality, the largest and most overlooked taxpayer subsidy to the food industry is SNAP, which comprised two-thirds of the farm bill budget in 2008.

Food Stamps, Follow the Money examines what we know and don’t know about how much the food industry and large banks benefit from a tax-payer program that has grown to $78 billion in 2011, up from $30 billion just four years earlier, and projected to increase further due to current economic conditions.

As the largest government-funded agriculture program in the nation, SNAP presents a tremendous opportunity to help tens of millions of Americans be better nourished and to reshape our food system in a positive way. SNAP dollars now represent more than 10 percent of all grocery store purchases.

“Congress should make SNAP more transparent by mandating accurate tracking of SNAP expenditures. Why should only the likes of Walmart, Coca-Cola, and J.P. Morgan know how many billions of our tax dollars are spent each year?” said Ms. Simon.

The report makes these recommendations:

• Congress should not cut SNAP benefits in this time of extreme need
• USDA should disclose retailer redemptions on SNAP; Congress should require that USDA regularly report on these numbers
• Congress should mandate that USDA collect and make public product purchase data; Congress should pass Senator Ron Wyden’s bill, which includes such a requirement
• USDA should collect data on bank fees to assess and evaluate national costs and share this data with the public
• USDA should evaluate state contracts to determine if banks are taking undue advantage of taxpayer funds
• USDA should grant waiver requests from states that want to experiment with making health-oriented improvements to SNAP
• Anti-hunger groups should eliminate or disclose potential conflicts of interest when taking a public position regarding SNAP policy.

Simon, by the way,  is a member of the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group (and about 24 other LinkedIn groups). Her LinkedIn profile summary describes her passion:

My research demonstrates why voluntary industry self-regulation is a failure that should (and can) be replaced with enforceable regulations. I also provide advocates practical resources and technical assistance to counter lobbying tactics that undermine health policy efforts.

In a blog post, Simon says that the American Beverage Association and the Snack Food Association have locked arms to oppose health-oriented improvements to SNAP, sometimes in concert with anti-hunger groups. She notes that at least nine states have proposed bills to make health-oriented improvements to SNAP, but none have passed.

    Simon is a pit bull when it comes to the food lobby. The rhetoric against the food industry and retailers is a little too pitched for my tastes, and also this writer for Slate.  Does Simon think all food stamp redemptions can be made at farmers markets? Even so, I can't say that disagree with any of the report's recommendations.

    We should know more about how taxpayer funds are redeemed for food stamp benefits. States should have the flexibility of creating pilot programs to impose restrictions on junk food. Anti-hunger groups should disclose conflict of interest when they testify about SNAP policy.

    For more accountable government, we should do as Simon says.