Putting food stamps on a diet
Government | Janie B. Cheaney
I used to take a neighbor to the grocery store occasionally to buy food. Since she was too poor to afford a car, I wasn’t surprised that she paid with food stamps, but I was surprised at what filled her cart: chips, cookies, candy, soda, Twinkies, and Ho-Hos. But the checkout clerk who rang up such purchases every day didn’t raise an eyebrow. Junk food bulks large in just about every food stamp order.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley would like to change that by limiting what SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) recipients can purchase in her state: “You are looking at a billion dollars that will no longer be put toward candy and chocolate and sodas and chips, but may be put into apples and oranges and things that are healthy.”
Or maybe not. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the food stamp program, is armed with studies to show why Haley can’t do that. “Implications of Restricting the Use of Food Stamp Benefits,” a federal report, carefully explains it would just be too complicated. For one thing, the line between healthy and unhealthy food is sometimes not all that clear. For another, food restrictions would add complexity and cost to the program, and may not do that much to change the eating habits of participants anyway. And besides, there’s no direct link between food stamp participation and health problems like obesity, since people who aren’t in the program display the same unhealthy eating habits.
The report appears to make sense and actually echoes the problems conservatives have with federal programs: too costly, too complicated, hard to implement, susceptible to fraud. And all that is no doubt true, but a close reading exposes false assumptions and inconsistencies. For instance, “The imposition of new food restrictions would require more effort by recipients to understand which foods are allowed and which are not”—which implies recipients are stupid—“suggesting that substantial resources would be needed to educate participants on allowable food choices.” But elsewhere the report recommends “education” as a better alternative than restriction. Why not both? Education is not merely a matter of instruction but also of practice. Participants who are confronted with the food pyramid are unlikely to smack their foreheads and change their ways, but limiting their food stamp options at the same time might provide a little positive reinforcement.
What the report completely ignores is a “restrictive” program that the USDA has operated, with reasonable success, for years: WIC (Women-Infants-Children) is targeted toward a specific demographic, provides vouchers to purchase less than 20 specific foods, offers educational materials, and operates within a specified time frame. It’s far from perfect, but it’s genuinely helpful and fairly slender, especially compared to food stamps. SNAP may not make its users fat, but it could stand to lose a few pounds itself.
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