No Agricultural Economist Was Harmed–Let Alone Interviewed–During the Making of this Article

This past weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the kinds of food SNAP recipients purchase, based on a new USDA report.

Here is how the NYT article began:

What do households on food stamps buy at the grocery store?
The answer was largely a mystery until now. The United States 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 5 percent of the dollars they spent on food. The category of “sweetened beverages,” which includes fruit juices, energy drinks and sweetened teas, accounted for almost 10 percent of the dollars they spent on food.

Had the NYT’s intention been to provide arguments to those who wish to dismantle SNAP–a program which, in 2014, provided an average of $125 to spend on food to 46.5 million Americans with low or no income; that’s one in seven Americans–it wouldn’t have done a better job. This is especially given that title: “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.”

My Twitter feed came alive with (justified) criticism of the article. My University of Minnesota colleague Joe Soss wrote a long response on his Facebook page which should be read in full to appreciate just how bad the NYT reporting was, part of which reads as follows:

The story hammers away at the idea that “the No.1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which account for about 10 percent of the dollars they spend on food.” Milk is No. 1 among non-SNAP households, we’re told, not soft drinks. At the start of the article, [NYT reporter Anahad] O’Connor frames these and other alleged facts with a quote that tells readers what SNAP really is: “SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry.” The story doubles down on this misleading image of the program by ending with a discussion of how the big soda companies lobby to keep the SNAP funds flowing — and with a quote asserting, “This is the first time we’ve had confirmation that this massive taxpayer program is promoting all the wrong kinds of foods.”

I want to be clear here: This is bullshit. It’s a political hack job on a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the NYT has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page …

But what does the USDA report actually say? … Spoiler Alert: The report does not say that SNAP changes what people buy at the grocery–and that includes encouraging them to buy soda–and the report’s findings differ considerably from the portrayal Anahad O’Connor presents in the NYT … Here are the top three items in the report’s own summary of its major findings, reported in an attention-grabbing, color-shaded box:

1. There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized. Similar to most American households:

– About 40 cents of every dollar of food expenditures by SNAP households was spent on basic items such as meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and bread.
– Another 20 cents out of every dollar was spent on sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.
– The remaining 40 cents were spent on a variety of items such as cereal, prepared foods, dairy products, rice, and beans

2. The top 10 summary categories and the top 7 commodities by expenditure were the same for SNAP and non-SNAP households, although ranked in slightly different orders.

3. Less healthy food items were common purchases for both SNAP and non-SNAP households. Sweetened beverages, prepared desserts and salty snacks were among the top 10 summary categories for both groups. Expenditures were greater for sweetened beverages compared to all milk for both groups, as well.

Later, the report adds these bullet points to its summary, in a separate “pay attention” box:

4. Overall, there were few differences between SNAP and non-SNAP household expenditures by USDA Food Pattern categories. Expenditure shares for each of the USDA Food Patter categories (dairy, fruits, grains, oils, protein foods, solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS), and vegetables) varied by no more than 3 cents per dollar when comparing SNAP and non-SNAP households.

5. Protein foods represented the largest expenditure share for both household types, while proportionally more was spent on fruits and vegetables than on solid fats and added sugars, grains or dairy.

Let me be clear: The report does a fine job documenting what people buy; it’s the interpretation of the report’s results by the NYT that leaves much to be desired.

Most of the other comments I read regarding the NYT article were to the effect of: “Who is the NYT to tell poor people what they can and cannot spend their money on?,” as though one being poor necessarily implies that one is morally inferior, and so one needs to get told by Wealthy, Educated White Liberals (WEWLs) what one can and cannot buy.

And WEWLs actually wonder why the other half flipped them the bird on November 8?

why this happen? plz no

Look, I worship at the altar of Gary Taubes. I believe sugar is at the root of many of our so-called “diseases of civilization,” along with an excess consumption of refined carbohydrates by a largely sedentary population, and except to replenish my electrolytes during one particularly awful episode of food-borne illness in 2010 in West Africa, I have not had soda since December 28, 2004.

But I also find paternalism appalling,* no matter which side it comes from. It is especially appalling when said paternalism strongly hints at the idea that the poor are somehow morally deficient. The left gets up in arms when the right talks about mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients; this is no different.

The policy solution to Americans of every income level buying too much soda and too many sweetened drinks is not paternalism of the thou-shalt-not variety, it’s better health and nutrition education for everyone in elementary, middle, and high school.

And here is another thing about that NYT article: There are many, many agricultural economists who have done high-quality work on SNAP that steers clear from cheap advocacy. In no particular order: Parke Wilde at Tufts; Shelly Ver Ploeg at USDA’s Economic Research Service; my grad-school colleague Chad Meyerhoefer at Lehigh; Minnesota alum Travis Smith, now at UGA; my erstwhile colleague Tim Beatty; Craig Gundersen at Illinois; and so on, and so forth.

Were any of them interviewed in the article? Of course not. I mean, why would you talk to anyone over in icky flyover country? Why would you slum it at state schools? Instead, the reporter chose to go full TED Talk on the reader, remain comfortably ensconced in area code 212, and go with… Marion Nestle who, faisant flèche de tout bois, chose to use the report’s finding to attack her favorite bête noire: Big Bad Ag. Quoth Nestle:

“… 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.”

No. What is shocking is that an article which I would not have published when I was editor of my college’s newspaper not only gets published in but makes the front page of the New York Times, supposedly one of the last bastions of Real Journalism in this era of fake news and filter bubbles.

Update: After I wrote this post on Sunday morning, Jacobin decided to run a lightly edited and slightly modified version of Joe Soss’ Facebook post as an article on Monday.

* I don’t consider behavioral nudges to be paternalism, even though they were introduced to us in the behavioral economics class I took in grad school as “cautious paternalism.” At any rate, I don’t consider a nudge to be paternalism if it leaves people free to chose while pushing them in one direction. For example, automatically enrolling people in their 401(k) leaves people free to un-enroll if they feel like it.

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