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With food stamp use soaring, program raises many questions

Hard times are compelling 46 million Americans to use food stamps, a number up an astonishing 70 percent from four years ago.

Now totaling about $65 billion a year, the recession-swelled food stamp program is drawing attention from some conservatives in Congress who wonder whether such spending should be corralled.

Part of the renewed conversation involves questions over the list of items that food stamps -- now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- can and cannot be used to buy.

Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes and tobacco are forbidden. So are vitamins, any food that can be eaten in a store, pet food and toilet paper.

But soft drinks, candy, cookies and ice cream, as well as birthday cakes, are allowable.

Is that a good thing?

Many people say no. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, believes food stamps shouldn't pay for soda, given its contribution to obesity, said to be more prevalent among the poor.

Bloomberg led a recent failed effort to preclude soft-drink purchases with food stamps. (With obesity on his mind as well, Philadelphia Mayor John Nutter lost a two-year fight to affix a citywide tax on soft drinks.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, turned down Bloomberg, saying it would be impossibly complex to determine which foods should be banned.

For example, the USDA said, soft drinks have less fat than granola bars, and cheddar cheese has more saturated fat than some candies.

How then, the USDA asks, does the government neatly categorize the "proper" amount of fat, salt, and sugar?

"No clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy," says a USDA paper written in 2007 that expresses standards still used.

Offended by Bloomberg's approach, some advocates say it's wrong to micromanage the poor just because they receive taxpayer funds.

Postal workers, Boeing Co. employees with federal contracts and the elderly on Social Security all receive taxpayer money as well. Should they be told what to eat, advocates ask.

"Those less sympathetic to the poor are out to undermine SNAP," said Julie Zaebst, a food stamp expert with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "It's a controversial issue -- what you're allowed to eat."

Controversy has long been part of SNAP history.

People have complained about alleged fraud in the program, even though the USDA said fraud is contained at 1 percent, compared with 4 percent in the 1990s, when SNAP issued paper coupons as food stamps. Since 2002, SNAP recipients have gotten their monthly allotments on debit cards, ending the illegal selling and trading of stamps.

Lost in the conversation about fraud is that just two-thirds of Americans who are eligible for food stamps receive them. Some are ashamed. Some don't think they're eligible. Many cannot negotiate the formidable bureaucracy.

SNAP benefits amount to around $1.40 per person per meal.

More important than fraud or eligible food items, advocates say, is the increasing difficulty even qualified people have in getting food stamps, now that states are cutting back on the workers who process applications.

Despite all the controversy surrounding food stamps, one thing is certain, said Joel Berg, an anti-hunger advocate from New York: "Without food stamps, we'd have starvation."

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