This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Should “nutrition assistance” money – food stamps – be used to buy items that have no nutritional value whatsoever and often make people sick?
We’re talking chips, cookies, sugary sodas and other junk food associated with Americans’ disturbingly high rates of obesity, diabetes and other conditions that help kill people and drive health costs higher.
Those conditions are more prevalent among the low-income – and they’re the ones who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That program (formerly called food stamps) provides funding assistance through cards that look like regular credit cards.
Increasingly, health experts and some lawmakers are saying that SNAP money should have some strings attached – like no junk food.
It’s a controversial recommendation, and it’s creating strange bedfellows. On the side seeking restrictions are fiscal conservatives and often liberal public health officials. On the other, the food industry, anti-regulation conservatives and often liberal advocates for the poor – who see restrictions on individual choice as stigmatizing low-income people.
The food industry, which makes huge profits on junk food, says nutritional education efforts would be better than restrictions. As if anyone doesn’t already know that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are more healthful than sugary sodas and potato chips.
One problem with restrictions is that many low-income people live in so-called “food deserts” where the only nearby place to buy food might be a corner convenience store. These are not usually known for carrying a wide selection of nutritious products. But supporters of restrictions say those stores will start stocking more healthful alternatives if their customers can no longer use SNAP to buy junk food.
Sometimes it’s hard to definitively say what is and isn’t junk food. Is a low-sodium, multigrain chip made with 0 trans fat junk food?
A clearer distinction can be made with soft drinks. One restriction that could be easy to institute is to restrict SNAP users from using their cards to purchase sugary sodas. Few would argue that there’s even marginal nutritional value in those drinks, which are implicated in the rising epidemic of diabetes.
There’s a precedent for some restrictions on nutrition assistance (beyond tobacco and alcohol). The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, for instance, includes stringent limits on what food products clients may purchase with their benefits. The food must have nutritional value, and markets already are educated as to what those items are.
Food assistance is vitally important to millions of Americans, but it’s counterproductive to use it in a way that apparently contributes to the obesity and diabetes epidemic. It’s time to start putting tougher restrictions on what SNAP can be used to buy, starting with sugary sodas.