Should Food Stamps Exclude Unhealthy Purchases?

Food policy blogger Tom Laskaway argues that “food stamp benefits should be reserved for whole, nutritious foods — meats, grains, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables. Such a common-sense position should be entirely uncontroversial. Shame on us that it is not.”

In characterizing the debate about this proposition, he writes:

Anti-poverty programs in this country currently operate from the premise that poor people cannot be trusted with cash benefits and as a result such programs come with strict eligibility and performance requirements. Food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) have been politically sustainable precisely because they are not cash transfers, and thus can’t be “misspent” by the “idle,” “improvident” or “uneducated” poor people to whom they are given.
Why, then, the furor over reform proposals that would allow the food stamp program to favor — even subsidize — the purchase of healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables over snacks and soda?
Could this controversy result from a belief on the part of pundits and policy makers that being poor in America means acquiescing quietly to a substandard diet? Healthy foods, in this line of reasoning, are a luxury that should be reserved for those who can afford them. As unjust as this sounds when presented so baldly, it is exactly this belief that underlies attempts to deny government the right to make good nutrition a cornerstone of the food stamp program.

It is hard for me to imagine anyone arguing that healthy food should be reserved for the rich. Has any “pundit or policy maker” ever done so? But it is very easy for me to imagine why plenty of Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of government getting into the food police business even more than is already the case, and reacting against the paternalistic assumptions embedded in the idea that Congress best knows what poor people should eat.

Yes, I see the counterarguments: obesity is a huge problem among America’s poor, lots of kids are being given unhealthy food without any ability to make better decisions, etc. While I am all for efforts that endeavor to give these people access to fresh fruits and vegetables, however, I see a gradual, perhaps unstoppable increase in the number of things government funding touches, and I want to resist the notion that all these things justify paternalistic interventions in our lives, or the lives of folks who rely on government, and I imagine that most people who resist tying food stamps to specific, bureaucrat approved foods have similar concerns. And I’ll bet these same people would be very much in favor of ending the corn and sugar subsidies that play a far larger role in America’s obesity problem. You might say that thus far the government is at least as much the problem as it is the solution.