May 18, 2013

Another View: Bad nutrition is not just a matter of money, but also behavior

Food is both a need and a want, and people need support for making the right choices.


A recent editorial in the Portland Press Herald ("Our View: Hunger crisis calls for immediate attention," May 6) makes the argument that since Maine ranks seventh in the nation for food insecurity, more should be done to provide people with the food they need.

It is argued that General Assistance should not be cut, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be funded and commodity crops should not be subsidized (since doing so raises the cost of more nutritious fruits and vegetables).

The editorial concludes: "If we choose to, we can end needless suffering."

There is, however, one area that the editorial overlooks.

While, as pointed out, food is a need, it is also a want. While the satisfaction of a need helps maintain health, the satisfaction of a want helps maintain the behavior that gave rise to that satisfaction (in terms of B.F. Skinner's analysis, satisfying a want is called "reinforcement").

There are numerous forms of behavior that give rise to hunger (and that would be reinforced by satisfying that want), but most of them are undesirable, including low educational achievement, having more children than can be supported and poor work habits.

It may well be that "we can end needless suffering," but doing so requires that we not simply reinforce maladaptive behavior, since doing so perpetuates needless suffering. For example, food could made contingent on some kind of self-improvement, however slight (such as consistently getting to work on time).

A program along such lines would be more difficult to implement than one that simply hands out food, but it has the virtue of not tending to prolong the very problem is seeks to solve.

William Vaughan Jr. is a resident of Chebeague Island.

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