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Food Stamps Should be Used for Healthy Eating

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I had occasion the other day to visit an inner city convenience store in Richmond while working on an article (see the next issue of the Jefferson Policy Journal). I am not exactly Mr. Health Food Guy — I won’t touch tofu, cauliflower or fish oil — but even I was appalled by the wares on display.

Entire shelves in this shoebox establishment were given over to beer, soda, candy, pork rinds, potato chips and sugar-drenched cereals. The healthiest (or should I say “least unhealthy”) foods were ordinary starches like rice and potatoes whose sole nutritional virtue is that they were not drenched in sugar, fat and salt. If there is any correlation between the percentage of shelf space stocked with junk food and the nutritional intake of neighborhood residents, there should be no mystery whatsoever why Richmond’s inner-city population is suffering an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

I totally subscribe to the doctrine that people should be held accountable for their behavior. We should not make excuses for poor people who blow their slender resources on cigarettes, lottery tickets, a six-pack of beer and a bag of Tom’s Bacon Cheddar Fries. But I also acknowledge that the story is much bigger than the irresponsible lifestyle choices of the poor. Rent-seeking corporations and a spineless federal government bear their share of the blame.

Last week, Coca-Cola held its annual meeting. If all went according to schedule, David Almasi, executive director of the National Center for Public Policy Research, was planning to criticize the company for lobbying to keep soft drinks eligible for food stamps. Currently, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) forbids only the purchase of alcohol and tobacco. Through SNAP, American taxpayers subsidize the purchase of about $4 billion worth of soda products yearly.

My thinking on the subject coincides exactly with Almasi’s sentiments:

I’m all for freedom of choice and respecting peoples’ personal decisions, but Coke lobbying for its share of food stamp money is above and beyond altruism. While publicly promoting so-called ‘sustainability’ by hyping good nutrition and active lifestyles, Coca-Cola lobbyists are quietly seeking to ensure that American taxpayers subsidize the company’s high-calorie, sugary beverages. Both political parties carp about cutting the budget and fixing the deficit. How about stopping this virtual river of soda being paid for with our tax dollars?

I also agree with Justin Danhof, director of the National Center’s Free Enterprise Project:

In a free marketplace, folks should be able to purchase what they want. That is why Coca-Cola was right to fight New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to ban large beverages, but wrong when it fought his efforts to limit SNAP funds to healthier items. SNAP does not operate in a free market. It is taken from folks’ paychecks. It is reasonable to limit how those benefits are administered and for what items.

Actually, I would go a step further. I would apply the same logic to snack foods as well. If hunger is still a problem in the inner city, as many say is the case, public funds should be limited to products that meet basic nutritional guidelines. Surely, this is an area where do-gooder liberals and skin-flint conservatives can join forces to create better public policy and improve the health of the poor.

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