Food Stamp Users Should Be Able to Shop Online

But they shouldn’t feel pressure to spend their money on organic and gluten-free products that aren’t backed by science.

snap benefits.
Food stamp users should be able to buy healthy products like these online.

Almaje/Thinkstock

The federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, offers nutrition assistance to tens of millions of low and no-income Americans. Covering a wide range of food items, SNAP helps people afford food at stores and farmers markets. But one major problem is that SNAP users often live in food deserts or lack convenient and reliable access to transportation. So, activists are petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have SNAP benefits expanded to buy food online.

This is an obvious fix that the USDA should make. In fact, the USDA had planned a spring 2016 pilot program to allow some websites to accept SNAP EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) online. That initiative has yet to materialize, though, making this a worthy cause that still needs support. That’s why it’s so disheartening to see it championed by two groups that seem to be more intent on spreading bogus science—perhaps in the interest of furthering their own profits—than helping SNAP recipients.

The groups in question? Thrive Market, an online retailer of organic, non–genetically modified, and gluten-free fare, and the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental group best known for compiling an annual list of “Dirty Dozen” fruits and veggies to scare people into buying organic. Thrive’s campaign seems benevolent, and the cause is certainly just: The USDA defines “food deserts” as parts of the country where at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. (In rural areas, that’s widened to 10 miles.)

By last count, in 2010, more than 18 million people resided in such areas. Distance from a large (non–convenience store) grocer is a good predictor of obesity and other health problems, which is one reason why allowing SNAP users to shop online might make sense.

But the campaign’s benevolence is only surface-deep.

Just consider this promotional video depicting the Martinezs, a SNAP user family. “I feel like if we were to eat organic foods, the nutrients would give us more energy, and allow us to burn more fat, and feel more like ourselves, feel healthier,” explains one of the Martinez girls, lamenting the lack of local gluten-free options. “Being able to use our food stamps to buy organic foods online, it would make it easier for us, to help our family feel better with ourselves.” The Martinez girls’ mom, who has thyroid disease, says her doctor advises a gluten-free diet for her health.

This seems like a lovely family, and they deserve access to healthy food. But the way the video comes together suggests several unwarranted connections about what a “healthy” diet is.

“The video clip is concerning because it conflates organic, gluten-free, GMOs, obesity and even the woman’s thyroid disease,” says Margaret Gaughan, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Saint Joseph and director of a SNAP-Education grant in collaboration with the Connecticut Department of Public Health. “There is no proof that organic food is any more nutritious than non-organic, let alone any relationship with weight control. I also know of no credible research to show that gluten-free foods aid in weight loss when calories and physical activity are held constant.”

Thrive described the video as a personal testimony that was recorded without a script. “Thrive Market isn’t suggesting that organic or gluten-free foods are better for health and weight loss,” said Gunnar Lovelace, co-founder and co-CEO of Thrive Market.

Thrive’s products are nonperishable, packaged items like oils, meat sticks, seasonings, pastas, and chips. The site’s offerings are glaringly devoid of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, though it does feature an easy guide that allows you to “shop your values,” providing handy icons for organic, paleo, gluten-free, raw, or non-GMO food.

This is primarily why Thrive fare is marketed as healthy. Of course, the foods they sell can have a place, in moderation, as part of a balanced diet. But just because they are non-GMO or mostly organic does not make them healthier than other products. It does, however, tend to make them more expensive. Lovelace says, “When it comes to what we view as ‘healthy,’ our goal isn’t to prescribe what to eat, but instead present our customers with a range of options and educational information to empower them to make informed decisions, providing transparency and traceability for all of our products and categories.”

But some of what Thrive touts demonstrates the stark disconnect between fantasy and reality when it comes to what ‘healthy’ means. A quintessential Thrive post exclaims, “Elevate your s’mores game with Healthy Honey Marshmallows.” Ostensibly the marshmallows are “healthy” because the recipe “relies on honey instead of corn syrup or refined sugar for sweetness,” even though all forms of excessive sugar pack the same health-damaging impacts. (Honey is sweet because of fructose and glucose, just like other sugars.)

In an Aug. 5 SNAP campaign message, the Environmental Working Group painted its partner Thrive as a “socially conscious online store” founded to “make healthy living easy, affordable and accessible.” The email also plugs EWG’s own “Good Food on a Tight Budget” guide and trademarked annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, both of which position organic foods as superior to non-organic counterparts.

This is industry subterfuge in charitable organic clothing. Based on its pesticide “research” (in quotes for a reason), the Tight Budget guide recommends what EWG calls the most nutritious, most economical and “least polluted” fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, and dairy items, often recommending organic fare. The problem is the word “polluted” implies that there’s something wrong with fruits and veggies not on their lists.

There’s not. Dubbed the Environmental Worry Group, EWG’s methodologies, which haven’t changed in several years, have been discredited in the scientific community. (EWG did not reply to a request for comment.) Heavily biased in favor of the organic industry that funds it, EWG collaborates with the Organic Voices Action Fund, which has a board stuffed with executives from leading organic sellers like Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley. EWG’s advice that people eat organic to avoid “toxic” pesticide residue is based on fear of chemicals, not actual data. For one thing, organic farming also uses pesticides, insecticides, and other agricultural chemicals; they’re just naturally derived instead of synthetic. Whether a substance is synthetic or natural has no bearing on its toxicity.

When broadly analyzed, the science shows that organically grown food isn’t more nutritious overall and that the tiny amounts of pesticide residue on all foods are well below levels that could cause harm. These tactics are particularly problematic because singling out specific foods as “toxic” could scare people away from consuming plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins. (The internet is littered with advice on which foods to avoid if you can’t afford organic, and much of it cites the flawed EWG lists.)

The organic industry has historically differentiated its products by making false claims as this Academics Review marketing report explains, and like many other Americans, SNAP users might take the bait. Unfortunately, they’re the ones who can least afford to fall for this misinformation. “Would love to know when you accept [SNAP] as well. Poor people need to eat right too and on a budget,” writes one SNAP user on Thrive’s Facebook page. Of course poor people deserve to eat well—but no one needs to eat organic or non-GMO to be healthy, and this advertising is misleading at best and downright deceptive at worst. For one, the term GMO is arbitrary, as virtually all foods we eat have been extensively genetically altered in a field or lab in some capacity. Whether a food is derived from a genetically engineered source has no effect on safety, nutrition, or environmental impact, as William Saletan explained in Slate.

Allowing food stamps to be used online could help millions in parallel with the government’s push to eliminate food deserts. “When’s the last time you tried to carry groceries home on a city bus?” says Milton Stokes, director of global health and nutrition outreach at Monsanto Co. There are many online grocers who offer nutritious and even fresh and frozen food options, like Amazon Fresh and Fresh Direct. While they don’t currently deliver to all locations, including many food deserts, expanding their delivery ranges could be a faster solution for spreading access to healthy food than building new brick-and-mortar stores. Online grocery sales are projected to grow from $7 billion in 2015 to $18 billion in 2020, making it a viable industry to team up with the government to help correct this problem.

But one thing is certain: No matter what you’re paying with or where you’re buying from, it’s most important to consume plenty of fruits and vegetables, and not too much sodium, saturated fats, and sugar. There’s no reason to spend more money on organic, non-GMO hype.