A Florida state senator just introduced legislation that would bar food stamp usage for junk food or other unhealthy purchases. In a time of state budget cuts, “people can live without potato chips, without store-bought cookies, without their sodas,” she said. But are rules controlling exactly what foods and drinks people on food stamps can purchase really a good idea?
There are already some categories of grocery store items which food stamps can’t be used for: Alcohol, tobacco, prepared foods. But this legislation, proposed by Sen. Ronda Storms, would drastically broaden the terms. Storms’ bill would prohibit the purchase of all ”nonstaple, unhealthy foods” with funds provided by the federal food stamp program (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). According to the Los Angeles Times, legislation seeking to restrict SNAP purchases was introduced last year in Illinois, Oregon, California, Vermont and Texas (though none were successful).
I have mixed feelings about laws like these. I’ve argued before (in response to the whole ‘hipsters on food stamps‘ dustup) that as long as we’ve decided that food stamps are a worthwhile government project, we should leave it up to the individuals on food stamps to decide what kinds of groceries suit them best. The point of the food stamp program is to stop vulnerable Americans from going hungry, not to impose some sort of national dietary regime. And while it may seem more helpful (in a sort-of paternalistic way) to limit what folks on food stamps can buy to certain healthy or cost-efficient foods, what good does that do anyone if those foods aren’t things a food stamp user will actually eat?
Yes, you might say, but people on food stamps accustomed to buying junk could learn to eat healthier foods. But here, too, we run into trouble. Who gets to define ‘healthy?’ Or what is a staple and what is not? As we’ve seen with the school lunch program, a lot of industries and groups have a vested interest in what foods the government subsidizes. The task of defining what foods are healthy would be hard enough on its own, but throw lobbying groups in there? Guaranteed mess.
Of course, certainly there are categories of foods most people could agree are unhealthy, right? Things like soda, candy or potato chips. The food stamp ban could be limited to categories like these. And as much I want to stand firm in my belief that legislators should more or less stay out of food stamp recipients’ individual purchasing habits, I’d be tempted to support limited restrictions like these. Part of the goal in preventing hunger is preventing malnutrition. These days, we have people who are both obese and malnourished, due to processed foods that are cheap and taste good but have little nutrient value. Can anyone reasonably argue that soda, potato chips, or snack cakes are necessary components of anyone’s diet? Why should the government be subsidizing foods that only rot our teeth, give us diabetes and make us fat?
So I go back and forth. There are definitely dangers in letting legislators, even at a state level, set far-reaching rules on what can and can’t be purchased with food stamps, or define what foods are and aren’t healthy. But do these dangers outweigh the benefit of stopping the government (or taxpayers) from subsidizing Hostess and Frito-Lay? Or of possibly promoting healthier eating in an already very overweight nation, in which the cohort on food stamps is also the group most likely to be overweight? I can’t decide. Let’s hear what you guys think.
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