- Do Food Stamps and Fanta Mix?
Improving SNAP, Improving Lives: The Case For Healthier Food Stamps
Executive Director, NYC Coalition Against Hunger
Well-heeled conservatives and progressives always seem to unite on one issue: dictating that poor people should behave more virtuously than they themselves do.
This is just another example of the nation’s “do as we say, not as we do” attitude towards poor people.
Pushing to ban either soda or all junk foods in SNAP, let’s examine why such bans would be both unworkable and counter-productive. With billions of dollars at stake, the battle to define what “junk” food is would be epic, with nutrition experts pitted against food-industry lobbyists, slugging it out one food item at a time. There would be protracted battles every year as new products are introduced and as the ingredients of existing products changed, requiring a massive government bureaucracy.
Beyond sending the appalling message to low-income Americans that they are uniquely unsuited to make decisions about what is best for their own health, banning certain foods in the SNAP Program will fail to meet the anti-obesity objectives of proponents. There is no evidence that low-income people who receive SNAP benefits shop any less nutritiously than others with similar low incomes. The problem isn’t that they make poor choices – the problem is that they can’t afford to make better choices.
According to USDA, in 2008, 49 million Americans lived in households that were “food insecure,” meaning they couldn’t afford all the food their families needed. These households spent an average of $12 per person per week less on food than their food secure counterparts. That $12 often is the difference between being able to purchase food that is more nutritious but more expensive and food that is cheaper but less healthy.
The average SNAP allotment now equals only $1.48 per meal. When I recently lived for five days on the allotment of food I could purchase under SNAP, I was unable to afford a single piece of fruit. I wanted to buy whole wheat pasta, but even on sale, at $1.50 a box, it was just too expensive, and I could only afford white pasta at 59 cents a box.
It is no wonder that obesity and hunger are flip sides of the same coin of food unaffordability, which explains why the urban neighborhoods that have the highest levels of poverty and food insecurity also tend to have the highest rates of obesity.
Ban proponents assume that, if we just eliminate a few “bad foods” from our diets, we will all be healthier. That’s bunk. Good nutrition and healthy weight are all about balance and adopting improved eating and exercise habits for a lifetime.
A much better approach than taxing or banning so-called bad foods is doing far more to make healthier food affordable and physically available for struggling families. Government should accelerate its efforts to enable more farmers’ markets, produce stands, and full service supermarkets to locate in low-income neighborhoods and ensure that they accept SNAP benefits
This proposal may make sense for people who have distance from people who actually receive food stamps, if you have ever received food stamps you would know how degrading it is to have decisions that are pre made for you. Of course soda is not good for anyone, that's already been established, the idea that government would be educating these wayward poor people is an insulting, if old familiar one. If you are really concerned about the health or wellness of people who receive food stamps how about increasing the amount of savings that you can have and still receive food stamps so that people can actually save and build some wealth? Everyone knows that there is a correlation between money and health until you address that this measure is nothing more than another patronizing act of a clueless governor under a billionaire.
Licensed Social Workers and Nonprofit Consultant
While I support the intent of this proposal I believe it crosses a line. A key principle of effecting behavior change is empowering people with the information and resources they need to effectuate better decisions on their own. I fear that this mandate, if enacted, will be counterproductive to another goal, that of helping people achieve financial independence. Paternalism is not at all empowering as we have learned.
It is acceptable, in my opinion, to prohibit the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes with food stamps since these are not legitimate food products by the common definition of the term. But sugary soft drinks are still defined by the larger American population as a food product and if I am able to make the unfortunate decision to buy Coke or Pepsi with my own earned income, I think low income people should have the same opportunity.
A fairer way to achieve the goal of reduced use of sugary drinks would be to tax all sugary drinks, like we do cigarettes, which has proven to be an effective solution to a reduction in smoking. I urge the administration to consider redoubling its efforts to implement this tax while increasing public education regarding the health repercussions of drinking too much sugar. Let's not treat our low-income neighbors like children if we are unwilling to be treated that way ourselves.
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