POLITICS

Think People On Food Stamps Are Eating More Lobster Than You? Think Again

05/16/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015
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Lorca Henley of Bowling Green, Ohio, said her family's dinners on different nights this week included taco salads, tuna casserole with mashed potatoes, spaghetti with meat sauce and hamburgers they fried on the stove because they were out of propane.

Steak, lobster and crab legs were not on the menu, even though such fare figures prominently in political debates over what food people buy with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Henley, 42, said she's received SNAP benefits since October, when she lost her job as a registered nurse with a dialysis company. She said she gets $342 per month for herself, her husband and their three young kids. They buy lots of eggs, bread, apples and carrots, she added.

"I’ve never had crab legs in my life," Henley said. "I’ve never had lobster –- I haven’t had a steak in like four years."

Stories of SNAP recipients using benefits to buy shellfish and junk food abound.

"I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards," Rick Bratten, a Missouri Republican who this year proposed prohibiting SNAP recipients from buying seafood or steak, told the Washington Post. "When I can't afford it on my pay, I don't want people on the taxpayer's dime to afford those kinds of foods either."

In Maine and Wisconsin, lawmakers are pushing legislation to restrict SNAP benefits to foods deemed healthy. The Wisconsin State Assembly approved legislation this week to ban junk food and also "crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish." The bill's sponsor cited "anecdotal and perceived abuses."

Are the 46 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits gorging on steak and lobster at every meal, and snacking on chips and cookies the rest of the day? Are their diets really so extravagant, fabulous and disgusting all at once?

No. Though people who get food stamps are likelier to be obese than people who don't, their diets are hardly different, according to a comprehensive review of survey data recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps. Food stamp recipients scored 56.8 percent on a healthy eating index, compared with 60.3 percent for poor people who didn't get benefits and 60.2 percent for wealthier people. In other words, SNAP recipients' diets are marginally worse than everyone else's diets, which are terrible to begin with. When researchers controlled for demographic differences between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries, the differences in diet quality disappeared.

It also turns out that people on food stamps are actually eating less lobster than everyone else. Just 3 percent of SNAP recipients in the survey reported eating any shellfish the previous day, compared with 4.4 percent of poor people who didn't receive benefits and 3.9 percent of higher-income Americans.

Check out HuffPost's visualization of some of the data, which is based on surveys in which thousands of people were asked what they'd eaten the previous day:

Kevin Concannon, the USDA's undersecretary of nutrition, said in a recent interview that the fact that SNAP benefits are used out in the open at grocery stores partly explains the political impulse to restrict the program.

"It's a very transparent interaction that takes place out in the open in the supermarket or in a corner store, and there’s a natural curiosity for other people there looking in the line," Concannon said. "My belief has always been that because it’s a very public exchange, some people tend to want to put limits on it."

Henley, for her part, understands the impulse to judge people in the checkout line. On a recent day, she had run over to the Kroger near her house, where she noticed a woman in front of her in the checkout line paying with food stamps -- while wearing an Under Armor coat and carrying a Coach purse.

"You are the reason I feel like a worm," Henley said she remembered thinking.

She stopped herself from saying it out loud. Maybe the purse had been a gift, she remembered thinking; maybe the woman had recently lost her job.

"I judged her right off the bat, then walked it back a little in my mind," she said.

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