Research shows that people using the SNAP program have about the same buying habits as anyone who doesn't use the program to buy food.
Research shows that people using the SNAP program have about the same buying habits as anyone who doesn't use the program to buy food.

There’s an unfortunate perspective that’s taken hold among far too many of us over the last few decades, and that’s the notion that anyone who’s not economically secure has only themselves to blame.

Whether it’s people who’ve lost their jobs and are collecting unemployment, or low-income families who’re paying for their groceries with what used to be call food stamps, there’s a mean streak that blames them for whatever situation with which they’re struggling.

For example: I’ve seen families or single moms at the supermarket paying with a SNAP card for a cart-full of groceries I’d consider way too heavy on the sodas, snacks and junk food, and I have to check myself about silently feeling holier-than-them.

Such an attitude isn’t very compassionate, and now a new study confirms that such feelings are inaccurate, as well.

USDA just published quite a lengthy report detailing what ends up in the shopping carts of the typical household that receives food stamps (SNAP-program eligible), and the data are eye-opening at first, but plausible — and sobering — upon reflection. The report was compiled over the course of an entire calendar year from transaction data obtained from a “leading national grocery retailer,” according to USDA, and included supermarkets, a combination of food and drug stores and stand-alone drug stores.

Not surprisingly, meat, poultry and seafood accounted for the largest share of spending (19.2% of all dollars spent). But in the No. 2 slot was what was termed “sweetened beverages,” at 9.3% of all SNAP dollars spent. That category includes fruit juices, energy drinks and sweetened teas, but slightly more than half of those purchases represent were soft drinks.

That quickly led to calls for USDA to ban the purchase of soda by SNAP users.

“SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told The New York Times. “It’s pretty shocking.”

Really? Methinks Ms. Nestle ought to get out of her Manhattan office and spend an evening at a ball game, an afternoon at a shopping mall or even just an hour or two at a fast-food restaurant. That way, she’d see for herself just how atrocious the majority of Americans’ diets really are.

Newsflash, professor: Overindulgence in soft drinks, snack products and other junk foods isn’t limited to the folks in the low-income brackets. And overconsumption of sugary sodas is hardly a habit confined only to SMAP-eligible families.

As the Times story explained, “Truth is, there’s not much of a significant difference between the purchasing patterns of households on the SNAP program, versus the purchasing patterns of non-SNAP households.”

Countering the Myths
Further analysis of USDA’s data not only puts to rest the meme that only poor folks subsist on junk food and soft drinks, but underscores the fact that the remainder of the foods we collectively purchase belie the vegan rhetoric that the U.S. is becoming Vegetarian Nation.

Collectively, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk and cheese and other dairy foods accounted for 31.4% of all grocery purchases for SNAP households, and 30.5% for non-SNAP households. What USDA called “Frozen Prepared Foods” represented another 6.9% and 5.1% of the grocery purchases, respectively. Since a significant percentage of those products contain meat, poultry and dairy ingredients, that means approximately one-third of all grocery purchases among all households are animal foods.

By contrast, vegetables and fruits combined totaled 11.9% for SNAP households and 16.3% for non-SNAP households.

The remainder of the grocery bills for both categories of shoppers was spread over a number of categories — bread, crackers, salty snacks, condiments, cereals, coffee — that demonstrate hardly any discrepancies between different types of households.

The bottom line here is twofold, and forget the distinctions between low-income families eligible for assistance with food purchasing, and the rest of us: First, we’re a nation that depends on animal foods as the core components of our diets. The majority of the key nutrients we consume are derived from the plethora of meat, poultry and dairy products available in whatever supermarkets or retail stores we patronize.

Second, we all consume way too many sodas, snacks and candy items that have morphed from occasional treats to significant sustenance.

The former trend deserves to continue; the latter needs to be reversed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist, and do not necessarily reflect those of Farm Journal Media.