CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — For several years, the issue of food stamps in Maine has been simmering. The arguments relate to a number of issues, including the length of time one can receive food stamps (currently 60 months); what can be purchased (practically any food); whether fraud is involved (there have been such cases); and whether a recipient should be tested for assets (a $5,000 limit has been proposed).

The most recent scuffle, as reported by the Press Herald last week, involves whether soda and candy should be available for purchase with food stamps. According to the Nov. 23 article, Maine spent more than $115 million in medical claims related to obesity in the Medicaid program here, and 88 percent of those receiving health insurance through Medicaid also receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (also known as “food stamps”). In other words, those purchasing food with SNAP benefits may not be obtaining the most healthy food available.

One concern appears to be whether a ban on soda and candy would harm small food stores. According to a U.S. Census report, 18 percent of Maine residents receive SNAP benefits, making the state third in the nation, after Oregon and Mississippi. Gov. LePage’s decision to make fighting welfare in the state a central tenet of his administration would appear to be based on a real problem.

One way to think about the issue derives from the lyrics to the Rolling Stones song titled “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The song repeats that statement and continues with: “But if you try sometimes you just might find/ You get what you need.”

The distinction between wants and needs is fairly intuitive. We both want and need food, for example. Some of us want sex, but as research on the longevity of nuns demonstrates, we don’t need it. We need vitamin C, but in its absence do not spontaneously want sources of vitamin C, such as citrus fruit (as 18th-century Scottish surgeon James Lind’s need to search for a cure for scurvy shows: see

When it comes to food stamps, this distinction could be put to good use. One basic problem with food stamps derives from the fact that food is both a want and a need, but the program should be designed to provide for a need alone. The want intrudes, and results in people who may not really need food stamps opting for them. If there were a way to satisfy the need, but not the want, the problem would be at least attenuated.


It turns out there is a substance that satisfies the need for nutrition but skimps on the want. The product is called Soylent. It was devised by entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart, who determined what the body requires and simply ordered the necessary chemicals off the Internet.

According to the Soylent website, “Soylent’s nutritional makeup includes protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, and vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron and calcium. It includes all of the elements of a healthy diet, without excess amounts of sugars, saturated fats, or cholesterol.”

Living on Soylent, Rhinehart saw his food costs drop from $470 a month to $50. However, at the moment, one cannot purchase Soylent with food stamps.

The taste of Soylent appears to leave something to be desired. One reviewer, a New York Times dining reporter, stated: “These instant meals are meant for work warriors for whom good and delicious food is secondary to perfect and unassailable engineering.” For present purposes this is a plus: Soylent satisfies a need but not a want.

If Soylent were the only food available to those in need of dietary supplements, the percentage of Mainers seeking SNAP benefits might well decline (addressing the high rate of SNAP recipients in the state), while the health of those continuing to receive them might well improve (addressing the Medicaid costs of those recipients).

On a more general note, finding a way to satisfy the needs but not the wants of those in trouble would appear to be a necessary ingredient of any welfare program that addresses those, and only those, truly in need. Given this logic, allowing the purchase of soda and candy (which satisfy wants but not needs) goes in exactly the wrong direction.

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