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Proposals to restrict SNAP purchases, criminalize cash purchases; EBT grocer data

REMINDER: The November Food SNAP Coalition Meeting is Tuesday, November 30th from 10 to Noon. FNS Regional Administrator James Arena DeRosa will be joining us for this meeting. This will be the LAST Food SNAP Coalition meeting for 2010. An agenda will go out under separate email.

The following are address three important food/SNAP issues swirling around the country and the Commonwealth:

1) The Food Stamp/SNAP soda controversy:

In October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York filed a waiver request with USDA to restrict purchase of sodas with SNAP benefits. On its face, it might look reasonable to question if sodas have any nutritious value. But the proposal raises some serious concerns about the slippery slope of restricting food purchases, singling out SNAP recipients, and – as many anti-hunger advocates fear – creating a rationale for cutting SNAP benefits and funding overall. If the policy rationale is that government funds should not be used for the purchase sodas or other junk food, advocates have questioned whether government funds should be used to by sodas for the military and other government employees. And where does the line get drawn between sodas and carbonated fruit juices, carbonated water, sugar sweetened juices and energy drinks?

USDA has a helpful fact sheet (issued by the Bush Administration in March of 2007) discussing the challenges faced in restricting the use of Food Stamp/SNAP benefits. There are already restrictions on non-food items such as paper products, soaps, alcohol, medicines and more. The Fact Sheet notes there are over 300,000 food products on the market, and roughly 12,000 new products each year; a lack of widely accepted standards on what qualifies as healthful; many challenges in implementing restrictions at the local level; and a lack of evidence that SNAP recipients' purchases contribute to poor nutrition.

* USDA Fact sheet:

* For info on the N.Y. waiver request and additional links, see Parke Wilde's U.S. Food Policy blog:

2) Proposals to criminalize cash assistance recipients and impact on SNAP recipients:

During the past FY2010 budget deliberations, and continuing into the 2010 Gubernatorial campaign, much attention has been given to a proposal to incarcerate and fine cash assistance recipients (in this case, TAFDC and EAEDC) who use their cash assistance for cigarettes, alcohol, and lottery tickets. The proposal has NOT passed yet, but the issue has periodically taken off like wild fire in the news.

In the aftermath of the October and early November campaign ads, we have received calls from low income clients and social services groups reporting SNAP recipients hassled at checkout counters. MLRI recently received a call from an older woman caring for her cancer-ridden daughter and her daughter’s small child. She reported to us that she was harassed by other customers in line when she used her Bay State Access card to purchase food for the family with her SNAP benefits (and there were in fact no “banned” products in her cart). We have heard similar stories of individuals who have been questioned about their benefits at the checkout when they use their Bay State Access EBT card, and regardless of the fact that they do not receive cash assistance. (Less than 1/4 of SNAP recipients receive DTA cash assistance).

Attached is an MLRI fact sheet on the issue. Please contact MLRI if you become aware of any SNAP or cash assistance recipients hassled by store clerks or other customers when using their Bay State Access card to make food or non-food purchases. We are very concerned that criminalization of purchases- while highly questionable in its enforceability and wasteful of law enforcement resources - will have a deeper impact by discouraging needy families, seniors and persons with disabilities from applying for benefits to which they are entitled, or will cause them to let their benefits stand idle for fear of scrutiny by local food markets.

3) EBT dollars received by Massachusetts food grocers and convenience stores:

A number of Coalition members have contacted MLRI about the controversy surrounding the recent release of food stamp/EBT reimbursements to Massachusetts food vendors and DTA/USDA’s reactions on the posting by Whether or not USDA decides to make the EBT reimbursement data public, the recent news underscores the fact that thousands of large and food vendors nationwide are indeed major beneficiaries of these federal SNAP dollars, and all SNAP dollars benefit local and state economies. We hope Coalition members will find opportunities to engage area grocers and food retailers in the months ahead. We need their help in fighting to protect the SNAP program and against raiding SNAP appropriations to fund other programs, and to prevent against cuts in the 2012 Farm Bill Reauthorization.

Parke Wilde of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts makes some important observations in his U.S. Food Policy Blog about the EBT vendor controversy, “Just as the farm subsidies received by individual farmers are subject to freedom-of-information rules, and can be shared with the public, it seems reasonable to think of SNAP benefit payments to retailers as public information rather than fully private business information. Perhaps a reasonable compromise would be to stipulate a threshold for small retailers below which the exact dollar amount need not be made public.”

* MuckRock article of 10/18/10:

* Globe article, 11/11/10: State Tells Man He May Be Jailed for Releasing Data (Boston Globe article no longer available) 

* US Food Policy blog, 11/11/10:

On behalf of MLRI and the Food SNAP Coalition, may you and your families have a wonderful and relaxing Thanksgiving holiday. In thanks for all you do to relieve hunger in Massachusetts,


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