For years, dozens of cities, states and medical groups have urged changes to SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to help improve nutrition among the 43 million poorest Americans who receive food stamps.

Share story

What do households on food stamps buy at the grocery store?

The answer was largely a mystery until now. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the $74 billion food-stamp program called SNAP, has published a detailed report that provides a glimpse into the shopping cart of the typical household that receives food stamps.

The findings show that the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which accounted for about 10 percent of the dollars they spent on food. “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s pretty shocking.”

For years, dozens of cities, states and medical groups have urged changes to SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to help improve nutrition among the 43 million poorest Americans who receive food stamps. Specifically, they have called for restrictions so that food stamps cannot be used to buy junk food or sugary soft drinks.

But the food and beverage industries have spent millions opposing such measures, and the USDA has denied every request, saying that selectively banning certain foods would be unfair to food-stamp users and create too much red tape.

While the report, published recently, suggests a disproportionate amount of food-stamp money is going toward unhealthful foods, the USDA said it was unfair to single out food-stamp recipients for their soft-drink consumption.

The report compared SNAP households and non-SNAP households. While those who used food stamps bought slightly more junk food and fewer vegetables, both SNAP and non-SNAP households bought ample amounts of sweetened drinks, candy, ice cream and potato chips. Among non-SNAP households, for example, soft drinks ranked second on the list of food purchases, behind milk.

“Sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America,” Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said. “This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?”

The report was based on data from an unnamed, nationwide grocery chain, which provided the USDA with monthly records of food items bought in 2011 by more than 26 million households, about 3 million of them food-stamp recipients. The grocery chain identified and tracked SNAP households by their use of SNAP benefit cards at checkout. One limitation of the report was that it could not always distinguish when SNAP households used their benefits, other money or a combination of the two to pay for transactions.

The USDA report found that milk, cheese, potato chips, beef, cold cereal and baked bread were among the top purchases for all households. It indicated that all Americans bought ample amounts of desserts, salty snacks, candy and other junk foods. But the SNAP households spent slightly less money on nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds.

Overall, the report found, SNAP households spent about 40 cents of every dollar at the grocery on “basic items” such as meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and bread. Another 40 cents of every dollar was spent on “cereal, prepared foods, dairy products, rice and beans.” Lastly, 20 cents of each dollar was spent on a broad category of junk foods that included “sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.”

SNAP households spent 9.3 percent of their grocery budgets on soft drinks alone. That was slightly higher than the 7.1 percent figure for households that do not receive food stamps.

Several public-health experts said the findings were troubling.

David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, said the purpose of SNAP was to protect the health and well-being of the nation, not to ensure that poor households had ample access to sugary drinks.

“We have more evidence for the harms of sugary beverages than for any other category of food,” he said, “and yet it tops the list of reimbursed products in SNAP.”

Ludwig said other government programs had common-sense restrictions. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, and the national school-lunch program have strict nutrition standards.

The federal government provides SNAP benefits to roughly 23 million households each month. The average household receives about $256 in monthly benefits.