The food stamps program is a project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide sufficient and nutritious food to low-income Americans. Food stamps have a set dollar value, and recipients can choose to spend them on any type of non-prepared food. While the food stamps program effectively makes food available, it also causes controversy over the way each state regulates food stamps locally.
The USDA first began offering food stamps after passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964. At that time, the department's stated intention was to deliver enough food to families and individuals in need. As of October 2010, the USDA controls the food stamp program in an effort to promote more nutritious food with less of a focus on raw quantity. The USDA uses federal nutrition recommendations to determine what a healthy diet should cost, and this becomes the basis for issuing food stamps. Each state regulates and administers food stamps for its residents, with most states issuing a card to eligible households that retailers can swipe at the point of sale to deduce the cost of eligible products.
As a means of getting food to families in need, food stamps are generally successful. In 2004 the average recipient got $326 in food stamps each month. Food stamps also give users a great deal of choice since they pay for a wide range of foods, including fresh produce and the majority of non-prepared grocery items. Users can't buy alcohol, cigarettes or non-food items with food stamps, which helps to prevent abuse and keeps the program focused on improving the public health.
Food stamps don't provide benefits to all low-income households. Each state has its own laws, but alien residents and immigrants without proper documentation may be ineligible without a sufficient work history. Food stamp programs also place strain on the federal budget and force cuts elsewhere. The USDA also notes that critics of food stamp policies cite the fact that recipients are allowed to purchase many types of unhealthy food, including packaged foods high in sugar and fat.
Limiting the types of food eligible for food stamps is at the center of legal and ethical protests, past and present. According to the USDA's Amber Waves online publication, the state of Minnesota was at the center of a notable attempt to exclude candy and soda from food stamp eligibility in 2004. USDA data, however, indicates that food spending habits are complex and such limits may have a limited value in terms of increasing the nutritional value of the food low-income families buy.
The federal government administers other programs besides food stamps for promoting nutrition. WIC (Women, Infants and Children) is a program exclusive to women who are pregnant or have children up to 5 years of age. WIC comes in the form of vouchers that recipients can turn in for specific food products only, giving the government much greater control (and recipients less choice). The NSIP (Nutrition Services Incentive Program) serves individuals over age 60 by providing free meals at local community centers and offering meal deliveries to some recipients in their homes.
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