Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has asked the federal government for permission to bar New York City’s food stamp users from buying sodas and other sugary drinks with their benefits. Mr. Bloomberg cast his proposal as a kind of social and scientific experiment in fighting the national epidemic of obesity and diabetes. He promised that over the two-year life of the project, New York would collect data on whether food stamp users spent their taxpayer-funded benefits on more healthful choices, like fruits and vegetables. (see article here)
Interesting…on one hand it isn’t a bad experiment. What would happen if those in need and getting food stamps (and many with diseases such as diabetes) were forced to give up something known to be unhealthful and contribute to their dietary issues. Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, agrees with the mayor that this would save lives. Health advocates make it clear that they would like to improve everybody’s diet, not just that of food stamp recipients, through measures like a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Thus the data could be relevant. However there seems to be better ways to get the stats. How about simply asking for a study group? Getting people to volunteer, rather than taking away choice from a group that is already in need. How about educating everyone to make their own responsible decisions? Also let’s compare the price of soda to the price of milk. How will the stamp recipient buy as much milk as soda with the same means? What can the mayor or the government do to make the price of healthy foods competitive with unhealthy?
According to the article, President Johnson signed the nationwide food stamp plan into law in 1964 as part of his War on Poverty. It was billed as an effort to expand the diets of needy families, expected to number up to four million, who could buy, say, $10 worth of food stamps for $6 and then use them to buy food in grocery stores. (The program now serves 41.8 million people, a record number, about half of them children; the average benefit is about $100 per person a month.)
Food stamps were designed to enlarge the choices of poor and hungry people, rather than to limit them to the most nutritious items. Alcoholic beverages and tobacco were banned. But otherwise, the stamps were to be used to buy “almost any ordinary food,” according to news accounts at the time.
I see people with means making poor food choices every day. It’s frustrating as the choices are made not only for themselves as consumers but also for their children, who have little or no say-so. I’ve seen middle school kids share a bag of potato chips and drinking extra caffienated sodas while walking to school at 8 a.m. I see preschoolers with lunchboxes full of sugary drink boxes and overprocessed and over packaged foods, without a whole food in sight. And I see coffeehouse lines out the door of parents and children waiting for high fat, sugary, caffinated drinks. I guess these individuals and families have the right to choose to poison themselves with poor food, but those on food stamps do not.
Rather than upsetting New Yorkers on food stamps, perhaps Mayor Bloomberg could come see a workshop taught through Leah’s Pantry or visit an inner city school garden with children of all means and races learning about growing food. New York and other cities could decide to stop spending money on studies and revamping food stamp laws and instead fund more programs to empower people of all ages, with food and nutrition information rather than take away choice and means.