The people of Maine have made clear their frustration over the misuse of public assistance programs; it is the central reason why Gov. LePage was voted back into office last November.

Efforts to ban the use of food stamps to buy junk food, however, should not be fueled by a desire to punish those who make poor dietary decisions, or to pacify the voters who become enraged every time they see a poor person buy a candy bar.

Instead, they should be driven by a desire to show food stamp recipients how to eat better on a limited budget, and to fix a food system that contributes greatly to the health problems that plague all Americans.

SUPPORT FOR WELFARE REFORM

Lawmakers should keep that in mind as they debate L.D. 526, a bill sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, that would ask the federal government for a waiver banning soda, candy, chips and other junk food from the food stamp program.

Katz’s bill is similar to one that was rejected last year, though this time around, a member of the Democratic leadership, Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, has signed on as a co-sponsor. This is a signal that the measure may have the bipartisan support it needs to pass, particularly following an election in which voters spoke clearly on their desire for welfare reform.

L.D. 526 has been criticized for the added stigma it brings to public assistance, and to the added responsibility it places on the retail establishments that sell food.

However, the Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, operates just fine with similar restrictions, and after all, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – as food stamps are officially known – has nutrition at its heart.

BAD FOOD, BAD POLICY

According to one estimate, around $2 billion of food stamp funds are spent on sugary drinks alone each year.

The link between poor nutrition and obesity – and heart disease, and any number of other harmful, costly health problems – makes it imperative that policy is aimed at improving nutrition.

Forcing recipients to use their food stamps on broccoli and whole wheat bread rather than energy drinks and candy bars is welcome news to taxpayers who want to feel better about how their money is being spent. But it won’t, by itself, make recipients eat better.

That’s because a poor diet isn’t solely the result of uninformed or irresponsible shopping decisions; food stamp recipients buy a lot of nutritionally bankrupt fare because that is what’s available, and that is what’s affordable.

Just one in six low-income ZIP codes has a supermarket, so residents are often forced to shop in smaller stores, where prepackaged food far outnumbers nutritional offerings.

It doesn’t help that federal food policy promotes, through subsidies of the corn industry, sugar-laden, heavily processed foods, ensuring that they are cheap and plentiful.

If recipients can’t spend their food stamps on junk food, they’ll just spend their own money on it. In the end, not much will have changed.

IMPROVING NUTRITION

There is hope. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that giving recipients an extra 30 cents in benefits for every dollar spent on fruits and vegetables increased consumption of those items by 26 percent.

That’s no small deal: It is estimated that a 50 percent increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables could lead to a 15 percent reduction in heart disease.

Food stamps are now accepted at many farmers markets in Maine, often with 2-for-1 deals. But fruits, vegetables and other nutritional food have to be available, too, in the places that low-income residents shop every day.

To that end, the USDA should use its clout to pressure stores that accept food stamps to dedicate more shelf space and a larger percentage of its stock to nutritional foods.

Of course, that would require action at the federal level.

So if Katz’s bill passes, lawmakers should write two letters to Washington: one asking for junk food to be removed from Maine’s food stamp program, and the other requesting policy changes that make sure that plenty of better options are there to take its place.

filed under: