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Food Stamps in America – Readers Weigh In

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Last Thursday I wrote an article about food stamps in America and how many people who rely on on food stamps are struggling to make it through the end of the month before their aid runs out. The article elicited quite a few excellent comments which brought up many good points about the food stamp program in the US.

Food stamps provide a necessary service to millions of Americans. Without it, millions of Americans, including millions of children and elderly people, would have nothing to eat. However, there are numerous issues with the food stamp program, none of which have easy solutions.

Background about food stamps . There are a few misconceptions about what people can buy with food stamps. Food stamps can be used to purchase food items for the household only. This includes any prepackaged foods, regardless of nutritional content (including chips, sodas, candy, etc.). However, food stamps may not be used to purchase cigarettes, alcohol, or other non-food items. For more information, read the Food Stamp Q&A page at the USDA website.

Is the Food Stamp program broken?

One of the biggest issues that food stamp recipients currently face is the rising cost of food and meeting their grocery needs with the aid provided. However, there are several other issues regarding the food stamp program. Several readers left comments about issues they saw and suggestions about how the program could be improved. It would be impossible to solve the world’s problems in a blog post, and the following are only a few current issues with the food stamp program and some thoughts left by readers.

Rising Food Costs

Inflation is real. I see it every time I go to the grocery store or drive by a gas station. Unfortunately, inflation and rising costs of fuel are pushing food prices ever higher, while the amount of aid people receive remains the same. For those on fixed incomes such as Social Security, food stamps, or other government aid, there is little that can be done to bridge the gap (at least quickly; changes to the amount of aid people receive happen on an annual basis as part of the government’s budget). You can only buy so much food with finite resources. This is an ugly and unfortunate situation, and one that I certainly don’t have the answer to.

Jarhead recommended the program use a voucher system similar to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program.

If the government were to replace food stamps with vouchers (just like WIC) then you could control what the government’s money is spent on. Just give vouchers that are for the purchase of 10 Lbs of potatoes, 3 lbs of cheese, a certain amount of boxes or bags of cereal, etc, etc, etc. This also helps rising food prices in that no matter how much the price of that 10 Lbs of potatoes or any other item goes up they still have the voucher for that amount of food.

This obviously has pros and cons. The effects of inflation against food stamps could be curbed for the recipients, but then people have less of a choice regarding their food options. Perhaps something like this could work on a limited basis where certain staples are provided for via a voucher system, while the balance is provided under the current system. Then again, where do we draw the line with government control?

Unhealthy Food Choices and Misplaced Priorities

One topic that popped up several times concerned those who use food stamps to buy large quantities of food with limited nutritional value, or those who use food stamps to buy food and then cash to purchase lottery tickets, cigarettes, and alcohol.

Kristen commented:

I absolutely would not deny people who need assistance food stamps. However, (and I’m sorry that I’m passing some judgment here), I get really aggravated when I see a mom or dad at the grocery store using food stamps to buy a bunch of junk food, like chips and soda, and then pulling out a wad of cash to buy lottery tickets and cigarettes. I think people need to do a better job of getting their priorities in order for the sake of their children.

I worked as a cashier in a grocery store during high school and I witnessed scenes like this on multiple occasions. A pack of cigarettes a day is a $150 per month habit. Add in lottery tickets and alcohol, and you have enough money to feed a family healthy meals all month long, especially with additional assistance from food stamps.

Unfortunately, under the current system, people can basically buy any food they want as long as it is not hot food (such as from a restaurant).

Lynnae mentioned adding nutrition education to the program so people could make healthier food choices, similar to the WIC program:

With WIC you can only buy what’s on your voucher, and it’s all nutritional food. You also have to attend a certain number of educational classes, if you want your WIC benefits to continue. If you don’t attend the classes (Usually one hour of classes per 6 months of benefits), you don’t get the benefits.

An educational program is a good idea and may help some people who don’t know much about nutrition or budgeting, but it may not keep people from making wise decisions regarding purchases like lottery tickets, cigarettes, or alcohol. In the end it comes down to people making good choices, and dictating choice is impossible.

Program Fraud or Misuse

There were several comments regarding food stamp fraud and how people misuse their assistance. Fraud against government programs has been around as long as government programs have been around. The food stamp program is federally funded by the USDA, but each state administers it, including the investigation and prosecution of violations of the Food Stamp Program rules. Read what the USDA is doing to combat food stamp fraud.

Are There Solutions to These Problems?

As with any large program, there are inherent flaws and there is room for improvement. But I am not certain the system is broken. Millions of people are getting the assistance they need every month and are able to buy food. Hopefully that means buying healthy foods that provide a balanced diet. But it isn’t the government’s place to dictate which foods people buy.

However, with rising food costs, more money is needed. But how much money is needed, and at the expense of which other government programs? That is an answer I don’t have.

Are food stamps a band-aid or a cure?

Something on the CBS report really hit home with me. Almost 28 million Americans receive food stamps. Out of a population of 301 million, that is roughly 9% of the US population . In my opinion, that is too high. We are one of the world’s wealthiest and most advanced nations, but more than 9% of our population is struggling just to put food on the table (not accounting for those who do not receive benefits; how many people are actually struggling is certainly much higher).

David wrote:

I think society needs to look at the reasons why people are on welfare and work on fixing that rather than just continuing to come up with new ways to give out food stamps/WIC/monetary assistance, etc. I am all for giving help to anyone who needs it, but there is a much bigger problem going on behind the scenes that creates these situations with many of these people, and maybe that should be worked on as well.

While there are some people who may never be able to take care of themselves due to disabilities, old age, or other reasons, there are others for whom this may be a temporary situation. The latter group of people is the group David is talking about reaching.

Food stamps and similar forms of assistance are necessary. I don’t want to see the service stopped, but I’m sure there are improvements that can be made. I’m interested in reading your thoughts on the topic.


Published or updated December 9, 2010.
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