News & Commentary: SNAP Data in Court

Last week, Civil Eats ran an extended article on a battle that’s gone to the Supreme Court over access to retailers’ SNAP benefits data.  


The article points out the many possible implications of this data release. Most of the legal considerations revolve around how vulnerable businesses’ information is to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests by the news media. However, it also plays into the conversation around whether (or, how) to use SNAP to shape Americans’ diets.


Nationally, 13% of the population participates in SNAP (12% in Vermont). SNAP benefits vary by income level, however they are designed to be able to provide the majority of a household’s food budget if needed (see this analysis for details). That means they can have a significant influence on the diets of lower income households, which in turn face a higher rate of diet-related disease. . . in a time when half of American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases related to poor diet and low physical activity.


The question, then, is whether SNAP-based spending is going towards foods that exacerbate this problem (it is . . . most Americans spend money on unhealthy food, SNAP recipients aren’t more virtuous than everyone else) and whether the government should do something about that. It’s a tricky business whenever we get on the track of suggesting what people ought to eat, much less forcing their hand towards or away from certain items. The conventional wisdom has been to err on the side of the carrot - literally and figuratively. Even if you don’t care about “big government”, many people have empathy for the idea that it’s already stressful to have trouble accessing enough food to eat and adding a dose of bureaucratic paternalism to what food we’ll subsidize is perhaps a step too far.


The Civil Eats article suggests that our promotions-based approach is not making headway on the problem, particularly in the areas where we try to combine the dual virtues of healthy food and local food. They point to low participation rates and low total redemptions at farmers’ markets (in Vermont, in 2017 $112,000 in SNAP tokens went to farmers’ markets, total gross sales that year were $6.8 million). What would gain traction? Well, researchers would say that the way to find that out is to gather more data. . . data that is currently being withheld.  


The debate isn’t waiting on numbers because the news this past week also included a bill in Texas designed to ban SNAP use on junk food and sugary drinks, as covered May 1st in this article from the Washington Post. Texas is not the first state to go down this road; California, Illinois, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont have all attempted to some degree in the last several years.


Even if you get past philosophical philosophical disagreements around restricting SNAP usage, two practical roadblocks are the facts that 1.) It’s a federal program and the feds have a say too and; 2.) How do you define ‘junk food’ anyway? Even if we were 100% certain in our nutritional science (which we’re not) and even if there were a clear dividing line between ‘not a great idea’ food and true ‘junk’ food, there are still practical implementation problems. SNAP already requires a fairly involved enrollment process, that the federal government itself recognizes as a barrier to participation. If, on top of it all, it takes hours of study to understand what can be purchased . . . do you remember the last time you were stuck behind someone at the supermarket checkout debating what a sale coupon could be used for? Or the last time you were the one holding up the line? No one’s patience will survive. Seriously, it would destroy the program.


One place that may offer a starting point is sugary drinks. In 2016, the USDA reported that sugary drinks account for about 10% of SNAP food dollars spent. Restricting those sales feels a little more fair, if for no other reason that that we’re looking for policy-based ways to accomplish those restrictions for everyone not just SNAP recipients. Policy work has been done around drinks served in schools, listed on kids’ menus, subject to soda taxes, and restricted by soda sizes. And the nutrition science isn't very gray here, these drinks define “empty” calories - calories without nutrients and that don’t contribute to satiety.


Which brings us back around to the FOIA court case. Because if we have a test case for SNAP restrictions in the service of greater health that is fair in the sense that it’s part of a public reckoning on diet that goes beyond a poverty line divide, clearly a case of “junk” food, and easily defined as a purchase category, and we still can’t get traction - then we’ll be left with the question of what corporate interests might be fueling the opposition (okay, plenty of people jump to that question first, nonetheless). .  .and the natural follow up will be to trace the money, data for which is the subject of this Supreme Court case.