An alarming study has spotlighted how 42 million food stamp recipients spend their welfare handouts on ultra-processed junk food.

Coca-Cola, Sprite and other soft drinks are the most commonly-bought items via the $135 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a new study says.

Candy, potato chips, frozen pizza, ice cream, cookies, and other ultra-processed food dominates the top 20 items, says a report from the Economic Policy Innovation Center (EPIC).

Report author Matthew Dickerson says recipients spend ‘spend significant portions of their allotments on junk food.’

Even such seemingly healthy items as baked breads and lunch meat often contain dangerous dyes and preservatives

Even such seemingly healthy items as baked breads and lunch meat often contain dangerous dyes and preservatives    

These ‘non-nutritious foods’ include ‘sugary beverages and ultra-processed foods, which can lead to poor health,’ says the 35-page study.

The prevalence of junk food is another reason to trim SNAP, which has ballooned this century and gets recipients hooked on handouts, says Dickerson.

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The research comes as Washington lawmakers debate the text of an updated farm bill, with Republicans gunning to cut some $27 billion worth of nutrition program funding over 10 years.

Health experts warn against junk food, which is often high in calories, fat, and sugar, and low in fiber, which can lead to many health problems.

Poor diets can lead to weight gain, digestive issues, liver and kidney damage, depression and cancer.

The Department of Agriculture’s SNAP scheme helps low-income families buy groceries, snacks, and non-alcoholic drinks.

Some 42 million Americans currently receive monthly benefits at an average of $212 per person or $401 per household.

Hot foods, alcohol, and tobacco are not allowed under the scheme, but, the report says, there are ‘few other guidelines about eligible foods.’

Preschool teacher Jaqueline Benitez, one of 42 million US food stamp recipients, shops for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower, California

Preschool teacher Jaqueline Benitez, one of 42 million US food stamp recipients, shops for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower, California

Recipients spend much of their payouts on junk food, such as soft drinks, chips and other bag snacks, breakfast cereals, frozen handheld snacks, candy, frozen pizza, ice cream coffee creamer, and cookies. 

Other items on the top 20 list can also be problematic, experts warn.

The eight worst groups of ultra-processed foods 

  • Ultra-processed breads and breakfast foods
  • Fats, condiments, and sauces
  • Packaged sweet snacks and desserts
  • Sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages
  • Ready-to-eat or heat dishes
  • Meat, poultry, and seafood-based ready-to-eat products such as processed meat
  • Packaged savory snacks
  • Dairy-based desserts 

Shelf stable juice, for example, often includes added sugar.

Lunchmeat and fresh chicken frequently have had nitrates added as a preservative, which have been linked to breast and prostate cancer.

Even some baked breads and breakfast cereals found in grocery stores can be a worry, when they contain some food dyes and preservatives.

Heavily-processed foods have more synthetic ingredients that have little nutritional benefit and can cause harmful effects on the body.

They also contain more artificial ingredients like colorings and dyes, which have been linked to conditions like hyperactivity and cancer.

Dickerson, a former House Budget Committee advisor, says food stamp enrollment surged from 17.3 million beneficiaries in 2001 to 42.1 million last year.

Meanwhile, SNAP costs have exploded from $31 billion to $135 billion, his report says, using inflation-adjusted numbers.

That’s close to the entire annual turnover of Morocco.

Food stamp recipient Steve Summers fixes his evening meal in his apartment in Oakland, California

Food stamp recipient Steve Summers fixes his evening meal in his apartment in Oakland, California

A sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps is displayed in a Brooklyn grocery store

A sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps is displayed in a Brooklyn grocery store

WHAT ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS? 

Ultra-processed foods are high in added fat, sugar and salt, low in protein and fiber and contain artificial colorings, sweeteners and preservatives.

The term covers food that contains ingredients that a person wouldn’t add when cooking at home — such as chemicals, colorings and preservatives.

Premade meals, ice cream, sausages, deep-fried chicken and ketchup are some of the best-loved examples.

They are different to processed foods, which are processed to make them last longer or enhance their taste, such as cured meat, cheese and fresh bread.

Ultra-processed foods, such as sausages, cereals, biscuits and fizzy drinks, are formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives.

They contain little or no unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, seeds and eggs.

The foods are usually packed with sugars, oils, fats and salt, as well as  additives, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilizers.

Ultra-processed foods are often presented as ready-to-consume, taste good and are cheap.

Source: Open Food Facts  

As the scheme grows, recipients stay on stamps for longer, says Dickerson.

In the mid-1990s, less than a fifth of beneficiaries collected food stamps for 20 months or longer.

Nowadays, nearly half of them keep getting benefits for that period.

Worse still, says Dickerson, recipients include ever-more people who should be at work.

Nearly two thirds of SNAP recipients who could work did not, says the report

Between 2017-2019, the latest year for which relevant data were available, nearly two thirds of SNAP recipients who could work did not, he says.

SNAP’s work requirements are ‘limited, weak, and are currently waived completely or in part in 34 states,’ he adds.

‘The story of the food stamp program is one of expanding enrollment, higher spending, benefit payments growing faster than inflation,’ Dickerson says in his report.

The food stamp program that was launched in 1978 faces strengthening political headwinds.

The US House Agriculture Committee on Friday released its long-awaited farm bill draft that includes provisions to SNAP benefits by $27 billion over 10 years, a committee aide said.

The savings result from restricting the Department of Agriculture’s authority to update the cost of a sample grocery budget that underlies the benefit calculation.

Benefits would continue to rise with inflation, a committee aide said. Anti-hunger groups have said they oppose any cuts.

The bill is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Congress faces steep odds to pass the bill this session as the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-majority Senate remain far apart.

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