Data recently published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows something that critics of food stamps programs aren't going to like — in a sample of one particular popular grocery chain in 2011, food stamp recipients spent more money on soda and other sugary drinks than they did on fruits or vegetables — or most food with actual nutritional value.

In fact, sodas and sugary drinks were the #1 item purchased by people in the program.

What was the #1 item for non-food stamp users? Milk.

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The USDA culled 2011 sales data from a leading grocery chain and found that households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — better known as food stamps — spent more money on “junk food” than consumers who don't use food stamps.

According to the study, in 2011 food stamp recipients spent, at the store the study names only “a leading U.S. grocery retailer,” around $357,700,000 on soft drinks — considerably more than they did on spent on anything else — including milk ($253,700,000), ground beef ($201,000,000), “bag snacks” ($199,300,000) or “candy-packaged” ($96,200,000).

The reason for the study was to determine what food items SNAP recipients are spending the largest dollar amount of their benefits on, particularly in comparison to what consumers who do not use food stamps are spending their money on — as the study explains:

“The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) awarded a contract to IMPAQ International, LLC, to determine what foods are typically purchased by households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) benefits. This study examined point-of-sale (POS) food purchase data to determine for what foods SNAP households have the largest expenditures, including both SNAP benefits and other resources, and how their expenditures compare to those made by non-SNAP households.”

While SNAP recipients in the study were spending much more on soda than on milk, they were still only spending only a little less on milk in general as opposed to non-SNAP households — .15%, to be exact.

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Other items that ranked in the Top 25 that food stamp recipients spent their funds on were “frozen handhelds and snacks” (No 9 with $101,500,000 in purchases); “frozen pizza” (No 13 with $90,200,000 in purchases); “ice cream, ice milks, and sherbets” (No. 15 with $86,000,000 in purchases) and “cookies” (No. 17 with $78,200,000 in purchases).

There is good news for those who think that SNAP benefits shouldn't be able to be used to buy soda: many states are now introducing bills legislating tighter restrictions on what food stamps can be used to purchase.

In Arkansas, Republican Rep. Mary Bentley is seeking to take items such as chips, soda, and candy off of the list.

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On the Federal level, the US Department of Agriculture has introduced new demands on food retailers, forcing them to increase the number and variety of staple foods available to consumers. The hope is that this will help to combat the poor, and in many cases, unhealthy choices many low-income families using food stamps are left with.

Others argue that allowing taxpayer-funded food stamps to cover unhealthy food also adds to the government's bill down the line — in the form of healthcare coverage for the plethora of diseases that stem from obesity.

Legislation which could benefit communities living in so-called “food deserts,” where large, fully-stocked grocery stores are few and far between and fresh fruits and vegetables can be difficult to find, has also been introduced.

With 41,170,732 Americans — or 14% of the population — currently registered in food stamp programs, the ethics and economics of regulating food stamp purchases is a debate not likely to end anytime soon. How effective any resulting legislation might be, remains to be seen.

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