Congress managed to avoid a government shutdown through the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2024. This act is responsible for funding a myriad of programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Surrounding the conversation of this social net program are proposals to limit the consumer choices of its recipients. While such stipulations were not included in the budget legislation, they could still make it into the Farm Bill later this year. Lawmakers should be careful not to play big brother to low-income Americans.

The link between poverty and obesity is fairly well established, which would make SNAP recipients a logical target of health-focused programs. However, once you dive into the data, the link isn’t as clear-cut. Most individuals with obesity are not low-income and recent trends show that obesity rates have increased across all income levels. Thus, receiving SNAP should not make an individual uniquely beholden to nutrient restrictions.

Furthermore, the structure of SNAP is designed in such a way that maximizes consumer choice, not limits it.

There are two primary types of social safety net programs, one option offers in-kind benefits, the direct transfer of goods and services, and the other provides either cash or vouchers to purchase the needed resources. In the absence of functioning markets, such as natural disaster situations, in-kind benefits are often the only viable option. However, for non-crisis situations, vouchers or cash are preferred as they provide market power for low-income consumers and allow them to make the decisions that best meet their needs.

This is the structure behind programs like SNAP that provide electronic funds which can only be spent on groceries.  The program runs on the normal channels of commerce, and the electronic funds are spent in communities where the need is greatest, providing food for low-income Americans and supporting local retail jobs. The financial inclusion the program provides has spurred companies to expand offerings targeted at meeting these consumers’ needs. One such example is the push to allow grocery delivery to be included in the program and provide recipients with the convenience that other consumers enjoy.  The SNAP recipient would pay the delivery fee – it would not be covered by SNAP benefits.  The inclusion of such services also provides the added benefit of reducing barriers such as food deserts, which refer to areas without close grocery stores.

However, this market power could be undermined by proposals to limit SNAP recipients’ purchase of so-called “unhealthy” food. Primarily, this change would undermine the consumer choice of low-income Americans and distorts market signals that direct resources toward meeting their needs.

Apart from the infantilizing effect this restriction would have, it is difficult to enact in practice. The government updates its nutritional guidelines at least every five years and has issued many revisions of popular dietary visuals, such as the food pyramid.

In 1943, the USDA introduced the “Basic 7” food visual which, among other things, encouraged Americans to eat butter or fortified margarine every day. Such an emphasis on butter and fats is also popular in diets such as Atkins or Keto but was villainized by the low-fat diets popular in the 1990s. 

Under the 1992 guideline, carbs were supposed to make up most servings, which would also run contrary to other popular diets like Atkins and Keto diets, which are shown to promote weight loss more than some alternatives among the studied population.

The pyramid guide was most recently updated in 2011, and together these changes show that there is no set understanding of an ideal diet that can stand the test of time.

Even when considering sugar—a well-established health boogie-man—eliminating it from diets poses its own health problems. There is also a current debate regarding whether the body can truly tell the difference between natural sugars—which come from foods such as fruits that are highly recommended under current guidelines—and added sugar. The lack of consensus on basic recommendations makes limiting unhealthy foods impractical.

The best, albeit somewhat contradictory, research on healthy diets supports a balanced approach with concentration away from overly processed foods and an emphasis on flexibility to account for individual differences. Such vagueness is far from the prescriptive certainty needed to form a policy mandate for SNAP recipients.

Regardless of where one might land on the philosophical considerations regarding a mandate for healthy eating, practical considerations should make such proposals non-starters. Lawmakers should avoid passing such restrictions on low-income consumers. 

Tirzah Duren is the Vice President of Policy for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational organization. For more information about the Institute, or follow us on Twitter (X) @ConsumerPal.