Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute questions the federal government’s selective use of nutrition standards within its food programs.

Earlier this month, the Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Tom Vilsack proposed changes to the national school lunch program “to reflect the latest nutrition science.” Included in the announcement was the acknowledgment that: “by law, [the] USDA is required to set standards for the foods and beverages served through the school meal programs, including nutrition standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans [DGAs].”

The USDA proposed limiting the amount of added sugars in school meals to reflect the link between added sugars and the public health crisis of childhood obesity. While the USDA is making the right call, it raises the question – why not do the same for other government programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamp Program)?

SNAP provides more than five times as much federal assistance to low-income households than school meals – $113 billion vs. $16 billion in 2022. Like the school lunch program, a stated goal of SNAP is “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households.” Unlike the school lunch program, however, SNAP has no nutrition standards.

Moreover, the USDA uses a tool called the Thrifty Food Plan to set SNAP benefit levels, where USDA researchers construct a “market basket of food” to reflect the cost of purchasing a healthful diet on a limited budget. While SNAP benefits reflect the cost of a nutritious diet, there is no requirement that recipients use SNAP dollars to purchase healthy foods. Households can use SNAP benefits to purchase any food or beverage, with the exception of alcohol.     

The result is that actual SNAP purchases fall well short of the nutrition guidance provided in the Thrifty Food Plan.