Worry about food stamp growth, not what goes into the grocery cart

Published 10:10 am Monday, January 23, 2017

Our View

Earlier this month a Tennessee legislator proposed a bill that would prevent food stamp users from buying junk food and soda with government benefits.
The bill, which was later pulled, would request permission to add soda, ice cream, cookies and cake to the list of prohibited items from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that manages the $74 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also called food stamps.
A New York legislator last week introduced a bill in her state assembly that would impose restrictions on enrollees in New York’s food stamps program to ensure they purchase only food and beverages deemed “essential.” No luxury items like steak and lobster.
Republicans in other states last year sought to pass similar bills.
A Wisconsin lawmaker introduced legislation last April that would have mandated that participants in that state’s food stamp program, FoodShare, spend two-thirds of their benefits on approved nutritious items including fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and poultry.
Last year Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee’s First Congressional District introduced for a second time the Health Food Choices Act, which if passed would have severely restricted what kinds of foods food stamp recipients could purchase at the grocery store. No more buying soda or Twinkies with food stamps.
Fast food, red meat, white bread, trans fats, sugary cereals, processed foods, salty snacks, fried anything, refined grains, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, sodium, Snickers bars … We’re surrounded by unhealthy choices, and by people who would like to legislate them away.
Like everyone else, SNAP recipients drink too much soda and eat too many potato chips and Oreos. The fact that those unhealthy purchases are made with public assistance rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and their disdain has gone beyond rolling their eyes in the grocery checkout line. They want the SNAP program to stop paying for soda, cookies, and other treats.
The argument is that taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing the purchase of non-nutritional foods. Soda and candy lead to obesity, which leads to diabetes, heart disease and other ailments that in turn lead to higher health care costs. Well, yes, but low-income people aren’t the only ones driving up those costs.
Currently, food-stamp recipients face fairly limited restrictions: They can’t spend the stamps on alcohol, cigarettes, medicine, vitamins, or prepared food. In case the purpose of “food” stamps wasn’t obvious, using them to buy makeup, household items such as soap, or pet foods, is also prohibited. (Prediction: In ten years, we’ll be debating whether increases in government subsidies for pet food for animals who live with low-income families are too minimal.) But junk-food items — from soda to cookies to sweets — can be bought with food stamps. The Department of Agriculture’s website states that “soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items.”
Roe’s bill would have changed the model for food stamps to that used by the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides food benefits for mothers with young children. WIC has significantly more restrictions on it, to ensure that mothers and children get sufficient calcium, grains, and fruit.
Some argue that placing restrictions on food stamps is a nanny-state stunt. But there’s a huge difference between a government’s banning an item and a government’s refusing to subsidize an item. Few conservatives would support banning cigarette sales — but it’s hard to imagine that the Right would support a federal subsidy to help low-income Americans buy cigarettes.
Shifting food stamps to a WIC model would help ensure that taxpayer dollars are helping ease hunger, not satisfying junk-food cravings.
We see the good intentions of such legislation. But, should poor kids be required to eat raisin bran instead of Cap’n Crunch? Margarine instead of butter? Are those Baked Lays chips OK, or not? What about caffeine, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup?
More to the point: Why should the government dictate the dietary choices of SNAP recipients when the rest of us are free to sling Little Debbies and Mountain Dew into our carts? What we’re hearing is that it’s wrong to buy Fritos on the taxpayers’ dime.
Instead of worrying about our neighbors’ waistlines, we should turn our attention to the ever-expanding SNAP program. More than 47 million people get food stamps, up from 17 million in 2000. Nearly one in five Tennesseans get food stamps, among the highest rates in the nation. That’s far more than can be blamed on the recession and slow recovery. Because of relaxed eligibility standards, millions of people are getting food stamps who wouldn’t have qualified in the past. Congress is struggling to get its arms around the program, which accounts for 80 percent of spending under the farm bill.
If we’re serious about cutting taxpayer spending on groceries, we should stop handing out food stamps so generously, instead of minding what goes into each other’s carts. It’s all right to help people, but food stamps should not be a life-long crutch.

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