The Food Stamp program isn’t run by the
Department of Health and Human Services, it’s run by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. The annual budget allocation for food stamps
comes out each year through the farm bill. It serves as a reminder that
good social policy has to make sense politically in order to last over
time. If you can get Bob Dole and Ted Kennedy behind one social
program, that program has legs. (For those readers too young to
remember, Bob Dole was a U.S. senator from Kansas and 1996 candidate
for president before he became a spokesman for Viagra.)
More than 40 years on, food stamps have
changed in significant ways. For the most part, they are no longer
stamps. Plastic cards have replaced the paper stamps people once
received in the mail. Smiling clerks who read price tags and punched
prices into a manual register 30 years ago have now been replaced by
scanners that read from bar codes.
Food stamps have helped do what they set
out to do—to make sure that people who couldn’t afford enough food got
enough to eat. (Most cases of undernourishment occur today when people
eligible for food stamps don’t enroll in the program).
For most poor people, getting enough
food is no longer the problem. In many cases we have people using food
stamps who are unhealthy not because they eat too little, but because
they eat too much of the wrong things. The Food Stamp program has
become, as Paul Newman likes to say, about Newman’s Own products, a
prisoner of its own success.
Food stamps have an enormous impact on
our society, and our public health. According to USDA stats, one
American in 12 receives food stamps. Twenty-six million people in total
add to their food purchasing power through this form of government
assistance; about 1.8 million of them are in New York state and 18,000
in Onondaga County. The USDA has done studies showing that some people,
particularly non-elderly women, have a higher incidence of obesity when
they are using food stamps than those who are not.
Food stamp participants consume fewer
vegetables and fruits than people not eligible for the program but
nearly the same amount as poor people who are eligible for food stamps
but do not use them. USDA data show that the diets of food stamp
recipients are likely to be higher in saturated fats and sodium and
lower in fruits and vegetables than people not on food stamps.
We know that these poor eating patterns
are going to lead to health problems later in life, and eventually to
greater public expense for health care. Food stamps were created to
serve a slimmer, more impoverished nation. They are now serving a
people that have grown fatter and less healthy, a people being fed not
by farmers but by giant agribusiness conglomerates.
What to do? Most pantries that serve the
poor have programs educating people about diet and good nutrition.
Education is good, but it only goes so far. What we need is some tough
love. Food stamps should not be used to buy boxes and cans of things
that barely qualify as food. We can’t buy cigarettes or beer with them,
why should we be allowed to buy soda and candy bars? (I like both Milky
Ways and Coke, and consume far too many of them than I should—but I
don’t ask you to pay for them.) You can’t buy one of those rotisserie
chickens (which are one of the best, quickest and healthiest family
meal values around), but you can buy frozen lasagna or tacos, laden
with fat and salt, to take home and microwave.
Here’s a proposal: Let the bar codes
decide. Each time an item is swiped, the scanner already knows if that
item is food stamp-eligible or not. By adding a bit more data to the
bar code, the scanner could also check the nutritional content of the
product. Trans fats would be out. High sodium and sugar level foods
would be out. Maybe even some highly prepared foods would be banned so
that food stamp dollars could be stretched by encouraging recipients to
do more of their own food preparation.
Sound sensible? The bureaucracy
disagrees. In 2004, the state of Minnesota petitioned the USDA to allow
them to prohibit purchase of soda and candy with food stamps. The USDA
turned them down. That’s nuts.
Advocates for the poor will doubtless
cry that this proposal deprives Food Stamp recipients of their dignity
by depriving them of choice. Nonsense. There isn’t much dignity in
waddling around in government-sponsored obesity, as the social workers
spending their evenings at Gold’s Gym well know.
As for choice, Food Stamp recipients
typically have income of their own to spend on food. Anyone who wants
to buy Cheetos with their own hard-earned money is free to do so. This
proposal simply prohibits them from doing so with public funds. Just
like Medicaid doesn’t pay for medicine that doesn’t have some track
record of showing that it cures or controls illness, food stamps
shouldn’t pay for food that doesn’t contribute to good nutrition. Now
that we have the technology to help us keep track, let’s put it to work.
Ronald Reagan used to tell a famous
anecdote about a woman buying a $1 orange with a $20 food stamp,
collecting her change and using it to buy a bottle of vodka. Like many
Reagan yarns, it served its purpose, but it wasn’t true. There are lots
of restrictions on what you can’t buy with food stamps. Medicine,
sandwiches, restaurant meals, toiletries are all off-limits. (You can
buy Coke but you can’t buy vitamins. Figure that out.)
Recent laws passed in New York City ban
the use of trans fats in restaurants. That restricts choice, but
apparently diners in the Big Apple are down with that. If Chardonnay
sippers at Tavern on the Green can have Mike Bloomberg tell them what
fat can be used to fry the haddock, the secretary of Agriculture should
be free to give a single mom from the West Side a nudge when she’s on
the checkout line at Nojaim’s. We’ll all be better off, and Food
Stamps, an already great program, will become even better.
Ed Griffin-Nolan’s Sanity Fair column
appears weekly in the Syracuse New Times. He is not eligible for food
stamps. To find out if you qualify, go to the department’s Web site.