Food stamp ban on junk food seems like bad politics
In a previous time, poor people on food stamps were accused of buying lobster and steak on the government dole.
These days, it's potato chips and soda.
Progress? Not really.
For some, it's all part of the continuing attack on low income people who depend on government assistance by some politicians looking to score points and win elections by demonizing the poor. How else to explain a bill in Madison requiring food stamp recipients in Wisconsin to spend most of their money on "healthy foods" as defined by the state?
(FYI: Not many state officials can agree just what "healthy foods" means.)
Telling people what they can or can't eat isn't usually a smart political move. But after a 2012 presidential election that pretty much divided the nation into a population of either "takers or makers" it seems that some Republicans in Madison want to force the issue.
Even someone like Sherrie Tussler of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee – who supports the need for nutritional guidelines in the food stamp program – understands the need to give low-income families a degree of dignity and respect before imposing legislation that would never be considered for more affluent citizens.
"I know that government can't decide for us what we purchase at the grocery store, it's just not realistic," Tussler told reporters when the Assembly bill was first proposed.
The strangest thing about the bill passed by the Assembly this week that will require at least two-thirds of the state's FoodShare program to come from an ambiguous list of foods determined to be healthy was the lack of any definable evidence the law needed to be passed in the first place.
Even the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah) has admitted that the only real information he has about an alleged abuse of FoodShare in terms of junk food purchases by food stamp purchases is largely anecdotal.
In other words, he's heard lots of people talking about it but nobody can prove it.
Seems like a weird way to come up with a bunch of new laws.
The FoodShare program has been the subject of media investigations for fraud in the past that involve recipients illegally buying or selling food stamps in an underground black market but even those reports admitted most of the cases represented just a small fraction of the total amount of people receiving food stamps in Wisconsin.
The anecdotal nature of the alleged abuses remind me of the Ronald Reagan era view of food stamp recipients who made exorbitant food purchases. President Reagan himself referenced the infamous "welfare queen" who bought lobster and steak when he was president, even though a subsequent investigation never found the woman.
These days, Kaufert and others talk incessantly about rumors they hear about large amounts of junk food being purchased with food stamps and apparently decided that it had reached a critical mass in need of a solution.
The nutritional aspect of the bill can't be disputed; it's better to encourage low-income families to eat healthier. But the reality is a poor family in Milwaukee doesn't have that many healthy food choices due to the segregated nature of a city where fresh food markets and stores that aren't located in the central city.
And, as a mother who uses food stamps recently told me, the bill ignores a practical reality for many poor families trying to maintain a daily existence in challenging circumstances.
"When my kids get hungry and there's nothing left to eat, sometimes junk food is the only thing that will keep them happy," she said.
The bill also includes provisions to halt food stamp fraud in the $1.2 billion FoodShare program, another measure some feel is unnecessary since buying and selling food stamps is already illegal. That's why many Democrats see this latest bill as just another attack on the dignity of poor people maligned in the last election by Mitt Romney as the 47 percent who depended on government support.
As if Romney had any clue what it means to be a family on food stamps.
The main problem with this food stamp bill is the way state politicians ignored the current inability of the food stamp system to implement a new proposed ban on junk food under existing regulations and the likelihood that the federal government won't approve the measure anyway.
That makes it just another exercise in futility for state politicians with the only discernible intent being making some people continue to look down their noses on food stamp recipients who buy salty and savory treats for their children.
Ironically, the food stamp reform bill passed by the Assembly – it now goes to the state Senate – seems to pit some conservatives who usually argue to keep government out of private lives against those who believe taxpayers have the right to impose restrictions on any government benefit because, after all, we pay for it.
What's clear is the only people with the gall to demand that poor families can't have chips and sodas for snacks are those fortunate enough not to need government help during tough times.
In some ways, it's almost like the reverse of the old Marie Antoinette line about the poor: "Let them eat cake."
Only this time it's more about not letting them eat potato chips.
I think the "As long as you live under my roof you will abide by my rules." proverb that my father loved saying comes into play here. If you can afford to live out on your own, you can do what you want. If "daddy" is paying for everything, guess what? "Daddy" decides what you get.
Eugene: I agree with the substance of your piece. But I would caution against falling back on the easy labels. This is an issue that does not fall into the stereotypical Republican-Democrat divide. If you think all Democrats support your view poor people should be able to make their own decisions , think again. (These are the same folks that want to BAN fast food in poor neighborhoods). If you think all Republicans are in favor of more government restrictions on private choices, open your mind.
You know, every time you use a "savers club " type of card at a store like Pick n Save, it allows the store to record all of your purchases, shopping times, etc., which enables them to do better marketing. It would follow logic, then, that if the Quest cards are digital cards, the government should be able to digitally track what Quest/food stamp users are buying. This would enable taxpayers to see some kind of data that paints a better picture of just how many food stamp recipients make unhealthy vs. healthy choices. This would then prove whether this legislation is really justified or not.
I receive $200 a month from food share. i do not buy junk food with any of the money nor should others be allowded to buy soda,. potatoe chips, other junk food to feed their selves and their children. Why do you think we have so many fat kids and adults? Not eating healthy food! And who will be paying for their later health problems due to bad food habits? WE ARE. Not allowing people to purchase junk food on my, others money must be done. Plus, there is NO nutritious value in junk food--none. Everything must be done to force people to eat well. fresh fruits, vegetables at the top of any list. and fewer red meats. Farmers markets are opening for the season--excellent fresh food at them to buy and many markets including the great market at Fond du Lac and North avenue which opens Sat., May 11 from 9 am to noon accept food share money thru coins they give out by substracting dollars from one's food share card. I do this. Great way to buy and eat fresh fruits and vegetables--even home grown chickens.
@blitzen - thank you for defending my point, which you may not realize you did. Yes, school lunches are subsidized by public tax money, and school lunches are required to meet certain health and nutrition standards. You ever go through a hot lunch line as a kid and say "I'll just take a quadruple serving of Cheeto's for my meal today." No, you didn't. You got a grainy salisbury steak, some mashed potatoes, green beans, and a milk tossed onto your tray. So here in your school lunch example you see a case where a publicly subsidized meal is required to meet certain standards as far as contents. Just like using a State food aid card/program should. You shouldn't be able to take your SNAP card and order a quadruple serving of Cheetos, just like you couldn't back in public school. The Michelle Obama and Bloomberg initiatives are based more on volume/size than on contents. They're telling people how much they can have, not necessarily what they can have. It's a one-size-fits-all plan that has no basis in reality. Some 6'2" Senior boy in high school should not be eating the same amount of food as a 5'2" Freshman girl. As for your example of companies telling employees what they can/cannot eat, in certain ways they do take this approach. If the company offers a free meal to their employees, then yes, it should be whatever they want to offer. Not just the employee walking into a general store and helping themselves. Not many companies do that to my knowledge. If they offer a meal at work the employee pays for... then it's the employees choice what they eat. My company does this. Since I'm spending my money, I could go in there and buy the whole chip rack if I wanted and nobody would stop me. That's how it should work when you're spending your own money. How companies are starting to dictate their employees health, because as you said they take the brunt of insurance costs, is by testing employees each year and having their physical results drive their premium costs. So if I eat like a maniac over the course of a year, my premium is likely to go up as it will show in my health screen, and vice versa. So, as you can see, where people are receiving a benefit, whether it's cheaper school lunch or corporate insurance, those benefits come with strings attached. You want to eat whatever you want for school lunch? It's called A la Carte, get in that line. You want to eat like a piggy and not have your insurance rates affected, get your own insurance. You want to spend $400 a month on junk food... cut up your SNAP card.
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