Editorial | Take Food Limits Off the Table

02/28/2013 1:35 PM

03/05/2013 9:50 AM

We’ve all watched belts loosen over recent decades as America struggles to keep its weight under control. The resulting health issues are quickly becoming a national crisis that threaten to exacerbate already rapidly growing health care costs. But becoming the government food police is not the answer.

In recent weeks, Gov. Nikki Haley and Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller have proposed restricting the foods that can be purchased through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – what used to be called food stamps. Almost a fifth of South Carolinians receive some share of the $1.4 billion in federal aid that is routed through DSS. Currently, recipients are only barred from using the aid to buy alcohol, tobacco and prepared foods. Haley and Koller want to add to that list, to make it harder for the hundreds of thousands of participants to spend the money on unhealthy options such as candy and soda.

It’s just common sense, they say. “It’s like one big ‘Duh!’” Koller told The State newspaper earlier this month.

Not so fast. While the idea does appeal to our sense of righteous indignation at what seem to be dubious choices – we’re no more excited than anyone else that SNAP recipients nationwide spend $2 billion a year on soda – it quickly falls apart on closer inspection.

The biggest problem? There’s no evidence it will work. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the SNAP program, has found almost no difference in obesity levels between those who receive food aid and those with similar incomes who don’t. In other words, if we stopped providing food aid for non-healthy items, there’s no reason to believe it would have any impact on the prevalence of obesity.

The only slightly smaller problem? The likelihood of the USDA approving the waiver that Koller and Haley are seeking is exceedingly slim, to the point of almost nonexistent. Numerous other states and cities have floated similar ideas in the past, asking for permission to ban certain items from the approved list. To date, the USDA has approved none of them.

Why haven’t any of these waivers been granted? Well, there’s that first reason again: It most likely wouldn’t work. It also has the potential to create an enormous – and expensive – government bureaucracy charged with determining what counts as healthy and what doesn’t.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, explained the problem well in 2010, when that city was asking for permission to ban purchases of soda with SNAP funds:

“With billions of dollars at stake, the battle to define what ‘junk’ food is would be epic, with nutrition experts pitted against food-industry lobbyists, slugging it out one food item at a time. Should chocolate milk be banned? How about caramel apples or Fig Newtons? There would be protracted battles every year as new products are introduced and as the ingredients of existing products changed.”

The suggestion also further contributes to a paternalistic, nanny state mentality of government telling us what to do. The governor and her ideological allies have often complained about federal funds that come with strings attached, to the point of refusing to take part in some federal programs because they resent the lack of freedom to use the money as they wish. It seems counterintuitive and ironic, if not bizarre, that the same leader now wants to attach her own strings to money given to others. In other words, while our leaders chafe at restrictions placed on their own spending, they’re happy to restrict the spending of others.

If we open this door to government looking over our shoulder with food aid, what’s the next step? If we’re willing to attach rules to government assistance in this case, what about other aid? Watching too much television isn’t particularly good for us. Will we begin telling those who receive disability payments that they can’t use the money to pay their cable bill or rent movies? Will we tell those receiving unemployment benefits that the money must be spent only on what a government agency considers the bare necessities? Once we start down this path, where do we draw the line?

If the concern with the SNAP program truly is the health of participants, there are alternatives to banning certain foods altogether, notably incentivizing healthy alternatives. Provide coupons to SNAP participants to make fresh produce less expensive. Allow participants to preorder foods or receive preassembled packages of foods, methods that have been proven to increase healthy eating by avoiding impulse purchases at grocery stores. Make it mandatory that SNAP retailers maintain a certain level of availability of healthy alternatives, increasing the opportunity for participants to make nutritious choices.

If the governor and DSS director are really concerned with obesity and not politics, let’s explore options more likely to actually work and more likely to actually be permitted. The alternative being pushed instead makes headlines, but when it comes to actually improving the lives of South Carolinians, it’s just spinning wheels.

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