Soft drinks were the top commodity bought by food stamp recipients shopping at outlets run by a single U.S. grocery retailer.
That is according to a new study released by the Food and Nutrition Service, the federal agency responsible for running the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as the food stamp program.
By contrast, milk was the top commodity bought from the same retailer by customers not on food stamps.
In calendar year 2011, according to the study, food stamp recipients spent approximately $357,700,000 buying soft drinks from an enterprise the study reveals only as “a leading U.S. grocery retailer.”
That was more than they spent on any other “food” commodity—including milk ($253,700,000), ground beef ($201,000,000), “bag snacks” ($199,300,000) or “candy-packaged” ($96,200,000), which also ranked among the top purchases.
The dollar amount that food stamp recipients spent on soft drinks and other commodities comes from data a retailer provided to a data analysis company the federal government hired to find out what kind of foods people on foods stamps—and Americans not on foods stamps—were buying.
“The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) awarded a contract to IMPAQ International, LLC, to determine what foods are typically purchased by households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) benefits,” the study explained. “This study examined point-of-sale (POS) food purchase data to determine for what foods SNAP households have the largest expenditures, including both SNAP benefits and other resources, and how their expenditures compare to those made by non-SNAP households.”
“POS transaction data from January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011 from a leading grocery retailer were examined for this study,” the report said.
As explained in a footnote, the identity of the retailer was not revealed: “Per the data sharing agreement between the data provider and IMPAQ, a description of the source of these data must be limited to the following: ‘From a leading U.S. grocery retailer data examining POS transactions from January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011 across approximately 11 million SNAP households. The majority of the stores would be classified as grocery stores, supermarkets, and combination food and drug stories per USDA/FNS food retailer definitions.”
The report concluded that, overall, the commodities and general categories of food products purchased by households on foods stamps and households not on food stamps were largely similar—although the rankings of these products in household purchasing patterns differed slightly between SNAP recipients and non-SNAP recipients.
“The top two commodities were the same for SNAP and non-SNAP households, namely soft drinks and fluid milk products, although the order was reversed with soft drinks ranked first for SNAP households compared to fluid milk products for non-SNAP households,” said the report.
The approximately $357,700,000 that households on food stamps spent in 2011 at this single retail chain equaled 5.44 percent of their total expenditures there.
By contrast, the $1,263,300,000 that non-food stamp households spent on soft drinks equaled only 4.01 percent of their purchases.
Food stamp households put 3.85 percent of their expenditures into milk, while non-food stamp households put 4.03 percent into milk.
Ground beef ranked as the third product bought by people on food stamps. They spent approximately $201,000,000 on that product at the retailer—or $156,700,00 less (43.8 percent) than they spent on soft drinks.
Other commodities that ranked in the Top 25 that food stamp recipients purchased included “bag snacks” (No. 4 with $199,300,000 in purchases); “frozen handhelds and snacks (No 9 with $101,500,000 in purchases); “candy-packaged” (No. 11 with $96,200,000 in purchases); “frozen pizza” (No 13 with $90,200,000 in purchases); “ice cream, ice milks, sherbets (No. 15 with $86,000,000 in purchases); “cookies” (No. 17 with $78,200,000 in purchases); and “cakes” (No 22 with $68,200,000 in purchases).
The study accounted for “candy-checklane” as a different commodity than “candy-packaged.” “Candy-checklane” was ranked No. 57 ($37,900,000 in purchases) just behind No. 56 “tomatoes” ($38,300,000) and just ahead of No. 58 “berries” ($37,900,000).”
When combined, “candy-packaged” and “candy-checklane” accounted for $134,100,000 in purchases made by food stamp recipients at this “leading U.S. grocery retailer.”
The NFS study also published a ranking of the Top 25 products that food stamp recipients bought at this retailer in a “subcommodity” category entitled “Solid Fats and Added Sugars.” This category broke out different types of soft drink and sweet purchases by their packaging and other distinguishing characteristics.
No. 1 on this list was canned soft drinks in packages of 12, 18 or 15. No. 2 was soft drinks in 2 liter bottles. No. 3 was canned soft drinks in packages of 20 or 24. “Sugar” itself ranked No. 4. But multi-bottle packages of soft drinks were No. 5 and a single serving of a soft drink in a bottle was No. 6.
The study also indicated that food stamp recipients spent $64,400,000 on the "subcategory" called "potato chips" at this "leading U.S. grocery retailer" and another $47,400,000 on the subcategory called "toritlla/nacho chips."
The study said it may not have captured all of the food purchases made by food stamp recipients in the grocery retailer from which the data was collected because a person was identified and monitored as a food stamp recipient only after they paid for the majority of a purchase with an EBT card.
“Some SNAP households may never have presented EBT as the majority tender in any transaction, for example,” the study said.
In fiscal 2011 (October 2010 through September 2011), there were 44,708,726 people participating in the food stamp program. These people lived in 21,072,113 households and received $71,810,924,022 in benefits.
In the first eleven months of fiscal 2016 (October through August), the average monthly participation in food stamps was 44,283,586 people and 21,815,990 households. In those months, the government paid out $61,110,832,720 in benefits.