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Letting SNAP Participants Buy Dietary Supplements With Their Benefits Could Leave Them Hungry

As the Senate considers the Agriculture Committee’s farm bill this week, it should avoid a provision in the House-passed farm bill that would let SNAP participants use their benefits to buy dietary supplements, such as multivitamins.

The Senate committee’s bill, the product of a bipartisan effort, would strengthen SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) while avoiding the House version’s harmful benefit cuts that would increase food insecurity and hardship for low-income Americans. To keep the bill strong, the Senate must reject damaging amendments during its floor debate that mirror problematic provisions in the House bill.

One example is the House’s provision involving dietary supplements. There is a scientific consensus that people should meet their nutritional needs mainly through the food they eat. Vitamin and mineral supplements, as their name suggests, are meant to complement a food diet. For SNAP recipients, who face limited budgets, their spending on dietary supplements would likely substitute for food. SNAP benefits are already modest, averaging just $1.40 per person per meal, so diverting food spending to supplements — which can be costly and are not regulated in a way that guarantees their efficacy — could leave participants hungry without improving their nutrition.

A more effective way to improve SNAP participants’ nutrition would be to make the SNAP benefit more adequate. SNAP benefits may be too low, and enhancing participants’ purchasing power would improve both food security and diet quality, a growing body of research suggests. As the Senate moves forward, policymakers must ensure that the farm bill’s nutrition provisions continue to give low-income Americans access to the food they need.