by Marion Nestle
Apr 11 2014

The secret life of food stamps: good for business

The writer Krissy Clark, in a collaboration between Marketplace and SLATE, has produced a remarkable series of articles (with audio and video) on business interests in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.

Here are brief excerpts:

The secret life of a food stamp, April 1

At a private dinner Walmart held for market analysts last fall in Bentonville, Ark., a company vice president estimated Walmart takes in 18 percent of all food stamp spending in the U.S….Meaning, Walmart took in more than $13 billion in revenue, or about 4 percent of Walmart’s total sales in the U.S.

So Walmart is likely the biggest single corporate beneficiary of SNAP, but it’s not just Walmart. A growing number of stores have baked food stamp funding into their business models since the Great Recession. The tally of stores authorized to accept food stamps has more than doubled since the year 2000, from big-box stores like Target and Costco to 7-Elevens and dollar stores. It’s a paradox that the more people are struggling to get by, the more valuable food stamps become for business.

Save money, live better, April 2

Although there are no federal numbers on where employed SNAP participants work, the state of Ohio…does keep a list of the top 50 companies with the most workers and their family members on food stamps. Ohio’s list includes lots of fast food chains and discount and big-box stores: McDonald’s, Target, Kroger supermarket, Dollar General. At the very top is Walmart, which had an average of more than 14,500 workers and family members on food stamps last year. If you take into account the average size of a family on food stamps, as many as 7,000 individual Walmart employees were on food stamps last year—nearly 15 percent of the company’s workforce across Ohio.

That means the same company that brings in the most food stamp dollars in revenue—an estimated $13 billion last year—also likely has the most employees using food stamps.

 Hungry for savings, April 3  

Like many anti-hunger advocates who receive donations from corporate retailers known for low wages, Elchert is in a tricky spot when it comes to addressing the paradoxes of the food stamp economy. His group gets financial support from Walmart and other food retailers. “When we’re talking a lot with corporations,” he says, “it’s one of those situations where, well, let’s talk about this in some way where we’re not offending them.”

I’ve talked about this issue in previous posts.  Here are some additional resources on the issue:


  • Sharon Badian

    Seems like so many problems would be solved if we could just agree to pay people a living wage. Given their obvious hatred of government hand-outs, you’d think every conservative would lobby for a living wage. Isn’t it better to pay people more for the work they do, rather than supplement their income via hand-outs? Sounds like cognitive dissonance to me.

  • Geneva Ormsby

    The living wage debate has been going on in this country for over a 100 years. While progress has been made, the war on poverty continues to be won by the wealthy. That’s because we depend on an economy that kicks ass when it comes creating wealth but sucks ass when it comes to distributing that wealth. It’s about time we started to realize that the real beneficiaries of government “hand-outs” are the corporations, not the working poor. We can all rant and rave and point fingers at these big box companies who get rich off of welfare to work, food stamps, universal health care, WIC, EITC, etc. The big box companies know there’s no teeth in the public’s threat of a boycott. It wasn’t that long ago when we pointed the finger at the “welfare queens” and passed The Welfare to Work Act. Only recently the gov’t passed a farm bill stripping over 8 billion dollars in food stamps out of the mouths of 850,000 low income wage earners while at the same time increasing funding to the organic food industry. Aint’ nobody shopping at Whole Foods bitching bout’ that. Why is Walmart the big box company who is the talk of the town over the colossal number of their employees receiving food stamps? Because there are serious financial incentives to hiring TANF recipients and Walmart executives are not stupid. Walmart could easily argue they are doing American tax payers a favor by giving these “welfare bums” a job.You asked for it America – in fact, 20 years ago, you demanded the welfare program be gutted. Isn’t that what you wanted, an end to TANF grants? Did you think the economy was going to right that wrong? Guess what – the welfare roles declined without any improvement in the number of people living in poverty. Former “welfare queens” don’t need a government hand-out to keep them enslaved in generational poverty. As it turns out, people still live in poverty while working full time. Yes, the next logical step is to increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation. But,it will never be enough to fill the gap between paychecks. We need to ask ourselves, how best do we meet the needs of the wage labor force? Maybe this recent “ahha” moment will enlighten the general public to the plight of the working poor and open their eyes to the necessity of “hand outs”. Government “hand-outs” have never broken the economy. Only the very wealthy have ever been able to bring the economy to its’ knees.

  • Carl

    Probably the best way out of this mess would be to give food stamps only to people who are self-employed or unemployed. Then Walmart and McDonalds employees couldn’t be slammed for double-dipping, cashing paychecks and blowing through foodstamps too. Then when Walmart discovers it’s employees are too weak from starvation to get any work done they will soon up the pay or start their own in-store feeding program or something. Same with McDonalds. Both Walmart and McDonalds sell plenty of food so they easily could feed employees. There, problem solved!

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  • Mike G. Moran

    It seems to me one of the most reasonable courses of action would be to require a company that accepts Food Stamps to also not contribute to the problem, thus a company can’t take in Food Stamp revenue unless it pays its own employees a livable wage.

    There won’t be a vacuum where Walmart employees are giving all their money back to Walmart. Instead those employees will have to shop at other, better establishments and will likely spend their actual paychecks elsewhere as well. Customers would do the same with their cash and money would be redistributed to companies that have earned business, rather than companies that have simply made a killing off treating employees poorly.

    It’s not as though poor wages are the only strike against Walmart when it comes to treating their workforce properly. This is probably a much needed reality check for them.

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  • TR

    Your idea won’t work. You are assuming that wealthy people have genuine empathy for the poor and struggling. If they had genuine empathy, they would have been paying their employees a living wage from the get go.

  • JW Ogden

    Sharon Badian I would go for a basic income guarantee. I think that the debate would about the amount.

  • JW Ogden

    How in SNAP a subsidy to Walmart? It is not. It is a a subsidy the SNAP recipients that is all.

    The Poverty Rate: Income and Consumption Estimates

  • JW Ogden

    Carl, you do understand that there are a billion people in the word who live (and work) on less than $2.00/day, right?

  • Victor Grunden

    The key question is, “Did these corporations actively participate in establishing the current system or, are they reacting to a system forced on them”? The various Tax Incentive Financing programs, hiring of illegal aliens and their qualifying for SNAP and other social programs are actively pursued by corporate interests. Both sides should be working hard to get the government out of micromanaging and having society as a whole subsidize business.

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