Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Should Food Stamps Buy Junk Food?


Once upon a time, I was adamantly nodding my head in favor of New York City's proposed ban on the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps.  Then I read this blog entry at Racialicious and understood a little better how complex food insecurity is. 

Also, I really don't have a problem with subsidizing the people I actually know who utilize food stamps, WIC, or Medicaid.  They're all hard-working, many are students or are navigating my area's difficult job market, and none wants or plans to utilize these programs forever.  I know there are loads of stories about people abusing these programs, and perhaps in other parts of the country - or even other parts of my county - that is an issue.  But I have yet to meet anyone who just sits back and enjoys some sort of welfare lifestyle.  Do I cringe when I see a cart loaded up with entirely packaged food?  Yes.  But it doesn't matter how a person is paying for it, and I'm usually not thinking "that person is bad/wrong/stupid."  I usually think "man I wish there were better packaged options in our country..."

I'm much more bothered by corn and sugar subsidies to huge corporations than I am by food subsidies to individuals and families.  And I really cannot fault anyone for heading to a fast food restaurant in a pinch.  I do it on occasion - and the one I prefer because it has some healthier options is much more expensive, so a family stretching their dollars to the max would not have that option if it even existed within a reasonable distance of them (Subway, mentioned in the article, is a total no-go for me.  The sodium content of deli meats is absurd.).

I just listened to this article on NPR's Talk of the Nation and it crystallized for me what bothers me most about this particular debate.  Sherrie Tussler (the interviewee) says:
They can't buy alcohol, cleaning products, tobacco products, but they can buy food.  And when people sit back and think about the food industry and how we would like to think of, for instance, Cheetos or soda as food, what we should really be questioning is not which person is putting that in which grocery cart so much as why the, I guess, food producers of our nation think that it's OK to call that food.
Yes.  Why are these things considered food?  Why do we allow food-like substances to make up the bulk of our grocery options? 

I am not in agreement with Tussler that it is the "food producers" that think it is OK to call it food.  Take Campbell's low sodium soups for instance and read here - it is us consumers who are choosing the junk.  We can chalk it up to years of eating highly sweetened, salty, fatty food - now we are all addicted, perhaps.

But what is the benefit of telling people what food they are and are not allowed to buy with food stamps?  Is it really going to make a dent in our deficit or healthcare costs?  Focusing energy and resources on what people are buying when they are using food stamps seems misguided - shouldn't we be focused on what options are available to all of us?  And, of course, what programs and methods are effective for getting folks off of public assistance?

Photocredit:  sanjoy on Flickr
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