Soda won't cure hunger - why buy it for hungry people?

Nutrition assistance programs and obesity problems

Changing how SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) work would make government part of the solution to the obesity problem rather than part of the problem.

In the U.S. there are too many children who are obese – around 17%. There are poor children who have unreliable access to food – 16%. And, there are children who are both poor and obese. That is unacceptable.

Seven times as many poor children are obese as those who are underweight, an indication that government aid in the form of food stamps, now officially called SNAP, does a good job of addressing hunger but encourages the consumption of unhealthy calories.

I found that information in Mark Bittman’s *Stop Subsidizing Obesity” at the New York Times Opinion Blogs. His article also inspired me to re-examine this issue and write this post.

The problem with poverty and hunger used to be insufficient access to calories. Poor people were underweight and starving to death. Programs like food stamps were the solution to hunger. But that was fifty years ago. A lot has changed in the way all of us eat, poor or not, and in how much we know about the health risks of sugar.

Obesity is a much larger problem for the U.S. than hunger is. It is killing more people, ruining more lives, and costing us more money than mere hunger.

Food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP, are still part of the solution to hunger, but it is also part of the problem with poor nutrition and obesity.

Soda won't cure hunger - why buy it for hungry people?

Malnourished and Obese

A lot of people who are not meeting their nutritional needs while also suffering with obesity. This is by no means rare. People are consuming a diet that is increasingly calorie-dense and nutrient poor. It’s a result of all the empty calories and processed foods that flood the market.

For more on the inner workings of this problem, read Dr. Mark Hyman’s How Malnutrition Causes Obesity where he states:

After reviewing the major nutritional research over the last 40 years and doing nutritional testing on over 10,000 patients — I can tell you that Americans are suffering from massive nutritional deficiencies. What I see in my office is reflected in the scientific literature. Upwards of 30 percent of American diets fall short of such common plant-derived nutrients as magnesium, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Vitamin A (2). More than 80 percent of Americans are running low on Vitamin D (3). And nine out of 10 people are deficient in omega-3 fats, which are critical for staving off inflammation and controlling blood sugar levels.

As a nation of taxpayers we are paying for people to consume products that are not only unnecessary to their nutrition needs, these products are proven harmful. We are contributing, with our tax dollars, to widespread malnutrition and obesity among the disadvantaged, and then paying the bill when they need medical treatment for the numerous health problems we are subsidizing.

How about we slow the problem down by not buying harmful products for people?

Bittman believes that four billion dollars of SNAP funds are spent on soda per year. This $4 billion figure comes from Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Soda is not food. It is not nutritious. Why are funds intended to supplement nutrition being spent on products with no nutritional value?

One part of the solution is perfectly obvious: Adjust SNAP policies to treat soda and other empty-calorie edible products the same way as cigarettes and alcohol. Prohibit the purchase of them with SNAP.

Bittman describes an additional way I also like and hadn’t thought of:

…make it easier to buy real food; several cities, including New York, have programs that double the value of food stamps when used for purchases at farmers markets. The next step is to similarly increase the spending power of food stamps when they’re used to buy fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, not just in farmers markets but in supermarkets – indeed, everywhere people buy food.

The solution is right in front of us

I have debated the prohibition of junk food purchases with SNAP with people who have nothing to gain financially – their argument was that it would unfair and too cumbersome to implement. “People on food stamps shouldn’t be deprived of the choices everyone else gets to make just because they are accepting assistance. It would be too difficult to clearly draw a line between the acceptable and unacceptable foods and be an increased burden on store owners.

This is not fascism, it’s not removing the freedoms of the less privileged to choose what they consume, it would be ensuring that when Uncle Sam reaches out his helping hand, he isn’t negligently pushing people off a cliff. It’s making sure people aren’t getting strangled in the safety net. People on SNAP would still be able to choose to purchase edible entertainment with whatever they can set aside for discretionary spending.

Other programs, like WIC, have a specific list of the exact food items that can be purchased with those funds. Store managers, cashiers, and the customers manage to figure it out and make it work. It has worked a long time. I am sure a similar system with SNAP would begin working tomorrow if the powers that be would implement it.

I doubt the junk food companies who profit from the purchase of their product with SNAP dollars concern themselves much with the welfare of anyone, so I can at least understand their objections, but I cannot understand why more well-intentioned advocates for the poor would be against making sure that nutrition assistance actually provides for nutrition. Every dollar spent on products with zero or negative nutritional value is a dollar that can’t be spent on actual food for the poor.

For more reading on this subject, and where I got much of the food for thought and figures for this piece:

Where do you stand on this?

In the comments I would like to hear what you think. Do you believe it would be fair to people on SNAP to curtail the choices they can make?