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February 8 2012

Healthy Food Stamps

Julie Gunlock

There’s an effort in Florida to ban certain food from being purchased with food stamps.  Under Florida State Representative Ronda Storms’ proposed legislation, SNAP users would be prevented from purchasing sodas, ice cream, candy, pies, pastries and doughnuts, as well as salty snack foods such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn.  In addition, Storms’ bill will require SNAP users to attend cooking classes.  Reactions to this bill have been mixed. Some have praised Storms for trying to “help” the poor make better food decisions.  Others are crying foul, saying the government shouldn’t tell people how they can eat.

While I wholeheartedly agree that the government has no business telling me how to feed myself or my family, critics of the measure should also consider that people on food stamps aren’t actually using their own money to buy food, they are using taxpayer dollars.  With that in mind, it isn’t so horrible to consider the use of government money might come with some inconvenient strings attached. 

Of course, the Storms bill is far from perfect.  The provision of the bill that requires people to attend cooking classes is particularly troubling, mostly because it’s totally unnecessary.  Perhaps Storms hasn’t heard of the Food Network or PBS—two channels that show very good instructive cooking shows nonstop.  In addition, even the worst cooks in America can figure out basic cooking skills.  We don’t need government programs to teach what generations of men and women have figured out on their own since the dawn of man.

But there is one criticism of the bill that must be considered.  As the Washington Post’s Jennifer LaRue Huget fairly points out, these types of regulations could create a headache for grocery stores trying to keep track of what the government considers healthy:  

While it may seem like a no-brainer that the federal government shouldn’t be funding the purchase of doughnuts and sodas, making such rules work in the real world is a complicated prospect. For one thing, the document notes, sorting out all the combinations of ingredients in foods to determine which are healthful and which are not requires more sophistication than simply making a good list and a bad list. For another, enforcing such rules would fall to the vendor. That might be doable for big chain grocery stores with sophisticated, computerized cash-register systems. But what about the teenager working the register at the corner convenience store? How can we expect that person to sort out which purchases are valid and which are not, and then to tell the customer he can’t use his food stamps for a Twinkie?  

I’m not handing in my small-government club card here and turning to the pro-regulation dark side but regulations on massive welfare programs such as the SNAP program are totally warranted and should be embraced by conservatives—especially in light of the reported $750 million in fraud and waste that occurs in the program every year (on Monday, the Obama Administration announced a new effort to reduce fraud in the program).

But there might be another good result from these proposed regulations--an incentive to get the heck off them.  Since the food stamp program began, the government has made their use easier and easier and has removed much of the stigma related to food stamps by making the SNAP card a debit card—one swipe, and you’re outta there. 

There’s been some discussion about this stigma and how that relates to the increasing numbers of people using SNAP.  Would less people turn to food stamps if the program still provided those paper vouchers and coupons, making them easily identifiable in the grocery line as food stamps? Probably not; in general, people don’t want other people to know they’re on welfare.

Government help nearly always comes with conditions.  Food stamps should be no different.  I don’t actually think these measures will make anyone healthier but I think it is well within the rights of the government to put some rules in place when they’re giving away money. 

We’re not talking torture here (although some may claim that).  It’s the loss of a favorite drink or snack food. People will survive…or use their own money to purchase the foods they love.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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