Of COURSE food stamps shouldn’t pay for junk food

I actually meant to address this subject a couple of months ago, when I read this op-ed by Louis Yuhasz, the founder of an anti-obesity nonprofit in Charleston:

Our foundation works with a 17-year-old girl who weighs 495 pounds. At home she’s fed a diet of convenience store food, bought at convenience store prices, largely at taxpayer expense. Rare is a salad or lean meat. Processed, packaged food is all she knows. And it’s slowly killing her.

But she won’t leave this earth without costing us all a small fortune. She’ll need knee replacement surgery before she leaves her 20s, and in her 30s her hips will fail her too. Taxpayers can probably expect to pay for a long stay in a nursing home for her, because of the toll diabetes will take on her vision and limbs.

If ever there was an example of solving one problem while creating another, it’s the food stamp program in America. Through it, as one critic recently suggested, our government is “subsidizing the obesity epidemic.”…

Don’t get him wrong, he explained. The food stamp program has done a lot of good, and saved lives. But it needs to be changed:

So here’s something Washington should think very seriously about: strictly limiting what foods can be purchased with the money we provide SNAP recipients. We already impose limitations: Beneficiaries can’t use their payments to buy alcohol or cigarettes. Why not take it one step further and bar the purchase of foods that are making us fat and sick, at least with the money coming out of taxpayers’ pockets?

Where would we draw the line? If it comes from the meat, seafood, produce or dairy sections, it’s probably good to go. Or maybe we could use an even more general standard: If my 100-year-old grandmother would recognize it as food, it is.

On the other hand, if the ingredient list includes added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, synthetic trans-fats, industrial seed oils, any ingredient name longer than four syllables, or if it would survive a nuclear holocaust, then put it back on the shelf, or at least buy it with your own money…

I’ve never gone along with the people who want to ban junk food, the way they’ve done with limiting soda intake in New York. But I have no problem at all with limiting what our tax dollars pay for. Besides, obesity costs us too much. We’re paying for it on the front end and the back end, as Yuhasz noted:

SNAP is expensive at $65 billon, but get a load of what obesity costs us in direct medical costs: $190 billion per year. Almost three quarters of Americans are either overweight or obese. Almost one in five children are clinically obese, and what used to be called adult-onset diabetes is one of the biggest health problems among kids…

So now I see in the paper today:

COLUMBIA, SC — Seeking to slow the childhood obesity epidemic, South Carolina health leaders would like to limit the purchase of sugar-filled drinks with food stamps.

Catherine Templeton, director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, and Lillian Koller, director of the Department of Social Services, have exchanged thoughts on the subject. They agree that cutting the intake of sugary drinks could improve the health of the state’s children, but they are struggling with how to use the food stamp program as a tool in that effort, and especially with whether the federal government will allow it.

Several similar efforts, most notably by New York City, have failed to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. The feds told New York in 2011 that they agree with the goal of limiting intake of sugary drinks, but the city’s proposal had operational challenges and impacted too many people. They suggested a test program on a smaller scale…

I’d like to see SC be used as that test case, as Joey Holleman’s story goes on to suggest. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for our state to be in the vanguard of improving health for once?

This seems to me like something that left and right ought to be able to get behind. I can imagine arguments against it, but I can’t imagine any good ones.

44 thoughts on “Of COURSE food stamps shouldn’t pay for junk food

  1. Steven Davis II

    Kill the EBT cards, bring back the government commodities. Come in, get your government flour, cheese, butter, powdered milk, etc… like they used to do. If you don’t like it and want to eat at McDonalds every meal, go find a job.

    EBT cards should not be allowed to be used at prepared food stores, convenience stores, or at gas pumps.

    There was a time when people used to be ashamed to be on Food Stamps, now it’s a sign of successfully working the system. You read all the time about immigrants at Sam’s Club or Costco buying meat with their EBT cards then taking it back to their restaurant and selling it to customers. If you own a restaurant, you don’t need to own an EBT card.

  2. John

    This is a very simplistic view, and it does not reflect well on leadership at DHEC. The proposal sounds an awful lot like a plan to conduct experiment with diets of poor people on food stamps. The justification is obesity? So this is a proposal to engage in an experiment with a medical outcome, right (treatment of a condition, obesity)? Are they given medical screenings too? Counseling? Do they have privacy rights? Do we have a plan to track outcomes at all? Or are they just being told “Ketchup is no longer a vegetable, eat tomatoes instead…” Look at the institutional review you need for a small drug trial at a research institution and compare it to the magnitude of this experiment; this proposal is breathtakingly unethical and unprofessional from that perspective. And DHEC regulates medical institutions?

    I’m not saying junk food has intrinsic value, but the idea of experimenting on people without offering the choice to participate or proposing to engage in any of the well known statistical techniques for verifying outcomes/protecting their health is willfully stupid and unprofessional. A public health oriented organization like DHEC should know better. I would like to see a proposal for an experiment (voluntary, with tracking and protections) but this is a waste of time.

    Last observation – we already have data points on barring the use of food stamps for buying tobacco and alcohol, right? And unless I’m mistaken, impoverished people still are disproportionately affected by tobacco addiction and alcoholism. We shouldn’t do experiments without thinking them through and we shouldn’t ignore data from experiments already done.

    1. Steven Davis II

      As long as I’m paying for their food, I should have a say. I say that all welfare recipients should be drug and alcohol tested. If you can afford drugs, cigarettes and booze, then why should I pay for your food?

  3. John

    I need a pause/think button sometimes, sorry. To be more clear and less angry:
    1. Programs to control obesity are good, particularly if they come with the kind of education that means long term changes. Obesity is the center of a terrible complex of public health problems.
    2. Attacking obesity by requiring the poor to choose between food assistance or participation in an experiment is unethical. This is especially true if they are being forced to make the choice for their dependents.
    That’s not being liberal or conservative, that’s being an ethical scientist who cares about public health.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I appreciate your input, John. And with your point No. 2 (in your second message), you’ve brought up a something worthy of consideration that I hadn’t thought of.

      Although, do you really think people would forgo food stamps, essentially go hungry, because they couldn’t buy junk with them? I suppose it’s possible, but it seems like that would be a rare and extreme response. As long as you could get SOME food, even if it’s not what you want, it seems like you’d want the stamps. Or EBT card, or whatever.

      I’ve lived my whole life with a highly limited diet. Since I know I can’t have anything with dairy products, or egg, or chicken, or anything from a bakery (wheat allergy, NOT the trendy gluten sensitivity), I just eat what I can, and seldom turn down anything I’m not allergic to. I certainly don’t starve myself because I can’t have a doughnut.

      But I know we shouldn’t try to predict what other people would do based on first-person experience…

  4. bud

    Silence, I don’t. But there is a school of thought that suggests that the best way to maximize the utility of the welfare system is simply to just give the welfare recipients money that they could use as they like. If they prefer coke over orange juice then they are better off having that option since they are likely to sell their foodstamps for a discount in order to buy what they really want rather than what is allowed. What this strategy does is essentially take the nanny state nature out of the equation. Given that we routinely and without controvers provide corporate welfare to subsidize corporate CEO bonuses I don’t really find that idea any more ludicrous.

  5. Lynn T

    I agree that it is a good idea not to buy junk food with SNAP. However, this kind of thing is not a substitute for Medicaid expansion, much as Tony Keck would like it to be.

  6. Doug Ross

    Starting with the drinks is a good idea. Perhaps the only liquids that should be allowed are fruit juices. I’d question even using food stamps for water since you can get water out of the tap. Food stamps should be about providing a healthy diet of basic foods. Limiting the foods that can be purchased with the food stamps also limits their value in the underground market. The problem is that any rule system will become overly complex with vendors fighting to get loopholes for their products.

    But this is what you get with socialistic policies.

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    A lot of the poor live in ” food deserts” where the only food store is a convenience-type place. While refusing to fund sugar-sweetened soft drinks is completely reasonable, drawing the line further is tricky. For one thing, obesity prevention is not clear. Plenty of obese people eat only healthy food and so many skinny ones eat large quantities of crap. Go figure.

    The causes of obesity are complex and the cures elusive. Sure, let’s not fund the purchase of sugary drinks. What else?

    1. Brad Warthen

      Well, I kind of liked the standard provided above:
      Where would we draw the line? If it comes from the meat, seafood, produce or dairy sections, it’s probably good to go. Or maybe we could use an even more general standard: If my 100-year-old grandmother would recognize it as food, it is.

      On the other hand, if the ingredient list includes added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, synthetic trans-fats, industrial seed oils, any ingredient name longer than four syllables, or if it would survive a nuclear holocaust, then put it back on the shelf, or at least buy it with your own money…

      1. Brad Warthen

        I realize the regs upholding such a standard would be more complicated than that, but it’s a start…

  8. Mark Stewart


    No offense, but you clearly haven’t experienced the water quality available (mostly from wells) in large swaths of the state.

    Again, this seems like such a happy medium topic. Let people buy some stuff; but don’t leave it all up to them. Is it really that hard? Nixing soda seems self-evident. But then no-one should think many “juices” are any better than soda.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Mark, thanks for pointing that out. I almost said something about the quality of tap water in poorer areas of the state, but wasn’t confident enough that I knew how widespread the problem was.

  9. Scout

    Yea – it’s true, in the small town where I work, if you don’t have transportation out of town, your choices of places to buy food are the gas station, a convenience store, and dollar general. No fresh vegetables to speak of.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      This comment from Scout inspired one on another thread.

      Basically, this is why vouchers would never help the kids in the poor districts that are THE education problem in SC: There’s not enough population density to make it worthwhile for a private provider to set up a decent private school in a community that can’t support a supermarket.

    2. Steven Davis II

      ” No fresh vegetables to speak of.”

      Makes me wonder if the whole town is totally ignorant to the concept of gardening. If they’re so poor they must not have jobs, so why can’t they grow gardens… small town, it’s not likely that they don’t have space problems. I bet laziness has a lot to do with it.

  10. Mark Stewart

    Neither am I, really. But south of hwy 301 the difference is evident and it would seem to go without saying that there are many, many shallow or otherwise inadequate wells in SC.

  11. Lynn

    Isn’t it ironic that an official in the administration of a governor who supports limited government is willing to insert government into poor people lives. Do Republicans only care about who we sleep with and what we eat as long as we are locked and loaded?
    Food stamps were created with dual purpose to assure low income Americans had enough to eat and support the demand for agricultural products (BIG AG). The food stamp program is housed at the Department of Agriculture. This is the same Department of AG that provides subsidies/price supports for corn , sugar and dairy (milk, butter, cheese) and other products of the BIG AG disguised as the American Family Farm. The purpose of the USDA is to promote consumption of American agriculture products.
    Food stamps were a way to encourage low income people to consume surplus AG products. Food stamps are 40+ years old. Over the past 40 to 50 years the nature of American agriculture has changed dramatically…more processed and convenient food loaded with salt and fat. Food got cheaper and more calorie dense and simultaneously less nutritious. Food science concentrated on making sure American consumed calories and not nutritional content. That’s what we measured. Based on an old mindset that hungry people lacked calories. There was little research on the linkages of food, calories, and health.
    Poor people learned to eat what was cheap, filled you up and tasted good and was easy and quick just like middle class families.
    So now we are facing the problem when the rich are thin and fit and the poor and obese and unhealthy. Problem growing low income and small stable high income further distorts the problem. The unintended consequence of well intended policies that support demand for American agriculture and feed the poor/hungry.
    Now we face a complex set of public health issues because of these policies. It’s easy to blame the obese, low income, and poorly educated people for their problems when they are responding to the same successful marketing we all have been enduring for years…more is better, quick and fast is best. How does a low income Mom working a part time job with only public transport find an affordable grocery store, buy the more expensive fresh food, and prepare nutritious foods for her family, while worrying about where she will find the money to buy disposable diapers for the toddler? When her children, just like other children want fruit loops and ftosted flakes and Coke. Have you priced a gallon of milk vs. 2 liter giant bottle of cola?
    Its acceptable to blame fat people for their condition and now it is apparently OK to punish the poor for our successful public and private marketing campaigns. Its just the law of unintended consequences on steroids.
    Good luck getting BIG AG lobbyist and the food industry to go along with this effort.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Lynn, your comment about the inconsistency of Republicans on small-gummint/big gummint — well, I’ve never considered either side consistent on those things. One reason why I’m neither.

      This is not the government intruding, though. The government is already intruding, and has done so for decades, in this area. This is just redefining the terms of the intrusion — and in a direction that ultimately saves us all on health care, which I guess is kinda small-gummint.

      If you want to call it paternalistic, fine. Hey, I’m the father of five children and five grandchildren, so my instincts tend that way. But food stamps are themselves paternalistic, possibly why I’ve always supported the program.

      I’m not trying to “blame” anybody or “punish” anybody for anything. I’m trying to save lives. I realize that something I’ve been doing — that we’ve been doing as a society — is killing people, and I want to stop doing that. I want to keep the poor from being hungry, and avoid killing them in the process.

  12. Karen McLeod

    But what if they live in an area with no grocery store? Can they buy sugar? How about frozen or canned goods? What if they are working 2 or 3 jobs (as most people who get food stamps are) and don’t have time to cook from scratch, or have never been taught how? These are real problems that need to be resolved.

    1. Steven Davis II

      I love how people will find excuses for other people’s poor decisions.

      Yeah, Froot Loops and Coke are okay for a 2 year old’s breakfast. Have you priced boxed cereal lately? Kids can’t eat oatmeal or toast and eggs. I grew up near a large family who mixed powdered milk with regular milk to stretch it out because they would go through 2-3 gallons per day. Hot Pockets are okay for anyone for lunch because a tuna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich just won’t do. TV dinners for dinner because inexpensive meals like scalloped potatoes, stew or meatloaf are too hard to make.

      I bet 90% of these same people have SmartPhones, large screen televisions with premium package cable, weekly hair or fingernail appointments, smoke or drink and don’t have a problem going out with their friends once the oldest kid is barely old enough to babysit. Not one has actually ever struggled like their grandparents had to and weren’t 300 pounds.

          1. die deutsche Flußgabelung

            I think she/he is implying you have no statistics or data to back up your claims that most people on food stamps are living the good life.

  13. John

    @Brad, with regard to your question “…do you really think people would forgo food stamps, essentially go hungry, because they couldn’t buy junk with them?” No I don’t, hungry people will do what they need. Do I think it’s ethical to volunteer them and their kids as experimental subjects in an obesity experiment? No.
    @Lynn – I couldn’t agree more. It’s especially frustrating to hear people apply the “grandma standard” to identifying the food – particularly when grandma or parents may not be around to help latchkey kids cook it.
    I also agree with Mark re the shallow wells, which are really a problem in SC. It would be great of DHEC wanted to improve health by improving water quality. That wouldn’t even be an experiment – we know that works.

    1. Steven Davis II

      So sad… and likely from someone who supports the party where one of it’s leaders wrote, “It takes a village”. But when it comes to actuality, it really takes a latchkey kid and a microwave oven is what you’re saying.

  14. Burl Burlingame

    Clean water simply isn’t as readily available as some think it is.

    On the other hand, when the government wants to experiment, they do so first on the poor.

    1. Steven Davis II

      Aren’t they the ones who are taking and not giving? You don’t experiment on prize items… those are control items, you experiment on the ones that aren’t able to survive on their own.

  15. Silence

    The WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program works very well, I think. People get a shopping list of items that they can get once a week. When I was in the grocery business (bagboy and cashier) it was things like a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a pack of cheese (real cheese, not “cheese food”) and things like that. Maybe the SNAP program could be operated more along those lines.

    I do agree with the gist of the comments that say we should look at poverty and welfare type programs in a more holistic manner.

  16. die deutsche Flußgabelung

    The USDA would never allow any state to entirely ban the use of food stamps to purchase junk food. The USDA is pretty much the lobbying arm of large agricultural producers. A lot of farmers make their living growing the corn, sugar, potatoes, wheat and other ingredients that go into that junk food. And like most government agencies the USDA is very prone to “regulatory capture.” And even when the USDA has tried to implement descent proposals in the past there is always Congress there to kill it. Remember a few years ago the USDA tried to limit how often schools could serve french fries. The potato producers went hysteric and lobbied Congress to prevent the USDA from placing limits on how many servings of fries schools could give to students. In country where pizza is classified as a vegetable, do you think Congress, specifically the Corn Belt dominated Senate, would implement such a ban on using food stamps to buy junk food?

  17. Steven Davis II

    People scream about farmer’s subsidies, not realizing that 80% of the money spent goes toward things like Food Stamps and not in farmer’s pockets. So if they want to say “cut farm subsidies”, they might as well be saying “cut food stamps” which is fine by me.

  18. Kathryn Fenner

    The grandma standard is bogus, although I do agree with Michael Pollan on most things and eat almost entirely in accordance with his mantra “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” I eat a lot of vegetables, but also meat and dairy.
    My grandmother, 1898-1990, who could cook anything from scratch in her day and was a visiting home economist in WW II who taught people how to cook things from their Victory Gardens or otherwise how to cope with rationing, readily fed us Tang even though she lived in Florida and had oranges on the tree in her yard. We glamorize the food of the past, but TV dinners were widely eaten (not in my house) in the 50s, hence all those “atomic” TV trays, and a lot of the cellophane wrapped crap like Moon Pies was available decades earlier….
    A lot of the poor either do not have time, since they are working double or triple shifts, or knowledge to cook from scratch. Generations earlier, mom was someone’s maid, and at some point, the skills did not get passed on. Indeed, many of my friends cannot cook or can barely cook, but since they are wealthy enough to eat out or take out or buy prepared foods, this is no problem. I think we should bring back home ec for everyone. My mom was a Martha Stewart/Betty Crocker/Heloise, but so few were even by the 70s.

    How many of you have ever baked a loaf of yeast bread from scratch, or a cake, or dry beans?

    1. Steven Davis II

      My grandmother’s mother died in 1918 when she was 12, from that age on she came home from school and cooked for the family of six, baked bread and pies, etc… and raised her younger siblings. So what happened to kids learning how to cook at an early age? I mean besides laziness on their part and the part of their parents? I used to enjoy cooking when I was around that age and made pretty much everything but meat portions of the meal. Today it’s, “MAC… Donalds has everything my chiren need on the dolla menu and they take ma EBT card.”.

      Why does Kathryn keep coming up with excuses for these people who don’t know anything but handouts? How many people of any social class work “triple shift”? I don’t know anyone who works 24 hours per day.

      During the Depression, my mother’s family ate pinto beans for every meal and sometimes that was it even though they lived on a farm. After your 99th meal of pinto beans you learn things to add to it to make it taste different. This was before anyone even heard of Food Stamps, you ate what you were served or went hungry.

  19. Brad Warthen Post author

    I have. On the latter two; I have no use for yeast bread.

    But I did make some corn bread from scratch, just last night.

    And I am probably the least skilled cook in South Carolina. If I had to eat only what I’d cooked, I’d probably starve. But… if I’m going to eat any kind of baked good, either I or someone in my family has to make it, because I have to use special ingredients on account of the allergies. For instance, the cornbread I made last night used rice flour in place of the wheat version, soy milk and an egg substitute. It comes out pretty good, although not quite as light as cornbread you get from Lizard’s Thicket or someplace, with wheat, milk and eggs. My version’s coarser, like poor folks’ cornpone.

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