I still think food stamps shouldn’t pay for junk food

So I’m glad to see SC moving forward with this initiative, or at least taking a half-step in that direction:

After hearing all the pros and cons during several months of public input, the state health department has recommended that South Carolina apply for a waiver to ban the use of food stamps for sugary drinks, candy, cookies and cakes.

The SC Department of Health and Environmental Control stated its position in a letter sent Monday from director Catherine Templeton to Lillian Koller, director of the state Department of Social Services. Koller’s department administers the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and will determine the content of a waiver request…

I have great respect for Sue Berkowitz and other advocates for the poor who have concerns about this. And the “food deserts” concern is a real problem.

But I just can’t see the taxpayers subsidizing purchases that are killing people instead of nourishing them. As Ms. Templeton says, we’re able to make WIC work with restrictions; why not this?

50 thoughts on “I still think food stamps shouldn’t pay for junk food

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Killing them? Nobody dies from a bag of chips. It is, at best, a dose response, but the links between diet and mortality or even morbidity have not shown to be causal.

    What about the massive food deserts where pretty much everything is “junk”? Are we going to have state-run grocery stores in Allendale?

  2. Karen McLeod

    You have money to pay for food. Would you like to see your grandchildren prevented from having cake or cookies? If not, why are you willing to impose this restriction on other people’s children?

    1. Brad Warthen

      I can’t have cakes or cookies. And since we’ve just learned that three of my grandchildren have celiac disease, they can’t, either.

      Life is filled with restrictions. Maybe growing up without things that other take for granted just gives me a different philosophical attitude on this.

      1. Silence

        Remember when Katrina hit and all of the po’ folks who couldn’t or didn’t evacuate New Orleans had to go seek shelter in the Superdome? The lady on the news video clip was really upset about having to eat hot dogs.
        Guess what? If taxpayers are buying your food, they also get to pick what you buy. Sorry if you don’t like it. It’s like a parent, buying a meal for a kid at a restaurant. Sorry, you are getting the mac and cheese, not the lobster tail. When you are paying, you can buy the lobster tail, kid.

    1. Mark Stewart

      I have a map of the entire state with all grocery stores (or those selling groceries like Walmart and Target, etc) plotted – real ones, not the rural crossroads convenience stores with the fryers and “buffets”. The bulk of the population lives within areas of enough density to support at least one such food store. But you would be surprised at the geography that remains 15 and even 25 miles from a food store in this state. As a percentage of the total population, these gap areas are not that great, but we are still talking tens of thousands of people it those truly rural areas.

      Then again, one would find large swaths of Richland County are more than two miles from the nearest food store. Stores are placed not by population density, but by profit potential. So somewhere like the Town of Lexington can support 7+ stores within a couple of miles of each other while at the same time the entire area from the Broad River to Hwy 321, Main Street to the Fairfield County line can barely support one.

      If you don’t recognize these food deserts, it’s because they hide in plain site.

      1. Doug Ross

        Why does not having a grocery store within 15 miles a desert? Are the food stamp recipients also without some form of transportation? They walk everywhere and only within a 2 mile radius? They never leave their homes?

        How many people are we really talking about who have no possible way to get to a grocery store on a weekly basis?

        This sounds a whole lot like the voter id issue. A very, very small number of people who could be dealt with separately while applying the “no junk food” rule to the majority of recipients.

        1. Doug Ross

          For those people who are truly in food deserts with no transportation, maybe the best solution would be to set up something similar to Meals on Wheels and deliver a box of healthy staple items and produce on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, I have little confidence that something like this could be run efficiently by the government. People on all sides of the program would find ways to game the system…. just as they do now with the food stamps being used for other purposes.

        2. Juan Caruso

          “Why does not having a grocery store within 15 miles a desert?” -Doug R

          Perhaps Mark is thinking ahead to the near future when big names like Amazon and Walmart deliver groceries to our doors, as they do in certain areas of the country now.

          As in the case of cell phones, why should only union employees (Obama’s ‘middle class’) have cells and grocery delivery when the government can redistribute free delivery to not only the lame, but the late and lazy simply by tacking on another ‘universal user’ fee (tax) on everyone else’s grocery bill?

          The playing field may certainly be leveled by such folly, but standards of living will be inevitably lowered for the populace at large, and the middle class (taxpayers who cannot afford lawyers to do their returns) will be history.

  3. Scout

    I can see both sides of this issue. I know that food deserts are real. And I know that many who live in food deserts can have limitations on transportation. If something like this will cause better choices to develop in food deserts, that’d be a good thing. Is this segment of the market strong enough to force such a change? I don’t know.

    Does anybody have a map of produce stands – do the people that put out the certified SC grown signs have a map of those. It’d be nice if produce stands were in reach. But I don’t know the data on that.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    For someone who flies all over the country every week, has several reliable vehicles at his disposal and is healthy, sure, it’s hard to fathom how two miles is a problem, but I tried to walk from my house to Earth Fare, a pleasant tree-lined one mile walk, to get all my groceries one spring maybe ten years ago. Although I lift weights and only buy for two people, and the weather was super pleasant, it was a long walk back and I had to spend most of every morning doing it. I don’t have children to care for, either.

    Sometimes you can be really blind to your privilege, Doug!

    1. Doug Ross


      Please quantify the number of people who are on food stamps and have no means to get to any location within 15 miles of their homes on a weekly basis… no friends or relatives with cars.. These people apparently never do anything but sit on their porches watching time pass by from birth until death… except for walking to a convenience store to buy their weekly allotment of macaroni & cheese, Slim Jims, and Fritos.

      This isn’t about privilege. If I had to walk to downtown Blythewood once a week to get my food (about 3 miles) I would and could… or would find someone to drive me.

      1. Doug Ross

        And if you’re getting something for nothing, do you really have a right to complain if someone tries to apply conditions to the getting it?

        “It’s just not fair that I get free food and can’t eat whatever I want! Wah!”

  5. Silence

    People who live in rural areas are just going to have to travel a little further to get stuff. That’s part of living in a rural area. If you want to work, go to school, shop, or whatever, you have to go further. It’s just part of life.
    It’s the “urban food deserts” that supposedly exist and are problematic. Hence, Columbia’s failed “Food Fresh” on Harden Street, next to Celia Saxon. It couldn’t make it, even with what was likely a pretty substantial subsidy from the city. With the upcoming Richland transit improvements, nobody should have an excuse about living in a food desert.

    I live as far as possible from any grocery store, in town, I’d bet. I have a car, so it’s not an issue, but I mapped the distances, just to see. My nearest 4 stores are 2.1 miles, 2.1, 2.6 and 2.8 miles. That’s pretty far for in town, but not insurmountable. Especially now with the penny tax.

  6. Doug Ross

    There are three food stores (Galaxy Foods and two IGA’s) within 5 miles of the center of Allendale.
    Seems like an entrepreneur at any of those stores could come up with a delivery service within that area.

    How did these people eat BEFORE food stamps?

    1. Scout

      Yea, but will they? This is the crux of the problem with market based solutions a lot of times. They may decide it’s not worth their while to meet this need because they are doing alright without the added expense.

      I think probably a lot of them were hungrier and skinnier before food stamps.

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    Folks, Mark DID quantify, to some extent. Exactly how am I supposed to get that information, and if I did, you’d just discount it.

    Food stamps have been around for decades. Lots has changed.

    This isn’t just about inconvenience for so many! It is pretty close to impossible, if not actually impossible, for many to get to and from a real grocery store. Carrying groceries for two miles, even, is more than I could do at forty. Try carrying a baby, or being seventy. My folks could not carry a candy bar a half mile these days!

    1. Doug Ross

      You are ignoring the question — are all these people just sitting in houses 24×7? What do they do? They don’t go to work , doctors, church, visit relatives? Just sit and stare at the walls all day? They can’t have cable TV, right? Because that would cost as much as a week’s worth of food.

      It’s an overstated “crisis”. I want to see details of large numbers of people who would be impacted by restricting their access to free junk food.

      1. Silence

        The real issue here is that the convenience store lobby is pretty darn powerful. They make a LOT of money off food stamps, and charge a lot higher prices than grocery stores for similar items. Since they are convenient and possibly have a less mobile customer base, they can get away with it. Most sell some apples, oranges, bananas and stuff if there’s any demand. Typically though, if they sell vegetables and fruit, they’ll have spoilage and produce low margins. If they sell processed, long shelf-life food, they don’t lose much to spoilage and can keep their margins high. Ultimately, they are the ones who are fighting the junk-food ban.

        When I was in H.S. I worked at Kroger as a courtesy clerk and later, as a cashier. It always annoyed me when people would come in with their WIC or food stamps and then have a separate non-foodstamp load of dog food, tobacco and beer. I always felt like it was pretty shameful. That experience decades ago still informs my opinion today.

          1. Silence

            Agreed that dogs are great. Can a food stamp program for dogs be far behind? NACHO. Nutrition Assistance for Canines Hungry or Otherwise.

  8. John

    The proposal is to make SNAP more like WIC, because WIC “works” according to Ms. Templeton. According to WIC’s own data, in 2009 61% of the people eligible for the benefit used it (the most recent data compilation I can readily find). SNAP benefit use for that year was approximately 75% of the eligible people. If we start with the assumption that the funding for both is equally needed then this tells us the less restrictive program was more successful at helping people get food to eat. That math is easy and it tells us that WIC is not as successful a strategy for getting food to more people.
    The quality of the food received may be quite different. I would like to see that analysis done first BEFORE we change the more successful program.

    1. Silence

      Your analysis based upon the adoption rate of WIC vs. SNAP is flawed, basically comparing apples to oranges, or maybe apples to twinkies would be more of an apt analogy.
      WIC is a voucher that specifically lists a very specific list of healthy foods that the user can receive. SNAP is a lot more like cash, where the user (within legal limits) can use the SNAP for any type of (non-prepared) food.
      Without looking it up, I remember that WIC authorized things like a weekly gallon of milk, a quantity of eggs, juice, cheese (had to be actual cheese, not “cheese food” so Kraft singles didn’t qualify), produce, baby formula (if needed) etc. Not sure exactly what’s on the list but it depends on your family structure and particular situation. Pregnant mothers get certain allowances, each kid does as well, nursing babies get something different. Basically it took the USDA’s concept of what children, infants and pregnant women should be eating for a healthy diet and gave the family a weekly ration of those items.

      SNAP was the actual “stamps” in my retail career, now its a debit-type card that allows the user to purchase any “food” items that they wish. There were restrictions against purchasing non-food items, prepared meals (no deli sandwiches or chicken tenders) and that was pretty much it. It’s a lot more flexible than WIC.

      If the intent is to ensure that people receive adequate nutrition, I would say that WIC has been phenomenally more successful than SNAP over the last several decades. If the intent is to enrich convenience store owners and big agribusiness, then SNAP has done a fantastic job.

      Everyone should have a chance to eat a proper nutritious diet. WIC gives that opportunity to vulnerable populations, specifically for ensuring that developing children and the unborn get the nutrition that they need to develop strong bodies and minds.

      1. Scout

        Nothing you said indicated that his analysis was flawed necessarily. His hypothesis was that SNAP’s greater flexibility accounted for it’s higher percentage of usage than WIC’s usage (75% vs. 61%) since WIC usage is more restricted. You provided lots of detail to flesh out his point that SNAP is more flexible than WIC. Now SNAP will lose that flexibility. Will it’s usage rate go down as people find it more difficult to buy eligible foods in places they have access to? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

        1. Silence

          It’s like saying that “public school is better than private school because a higher % of kids go there.” It doesn’t make it a better or more effective program.

          1. Scout

            It’s not really like that at all. You understand that those percentages were amount of people using the program out of the amount of people eligible for the program, for each separate program. 75% of those eligible used the flexible program. 61% of those eligible used the restricted program. You don’t think it’s possible that fewer people were able to take advantage of restricted program because of it’s restrictions. It’s just a hypothesis. But it’s not a ridiculous idea.

            You probably don’t want to get me started on public and private schools. I’ve just been chatting with Kenny Bingham about it. They managed to slip tax credits for private school scholarships for students with disabilities into the budget that passed today. He emailed me a bunch of information about it to answer my questions that I’m going to try to digest in a little while.

  9. John

    It actually isn’t my comparison, it was Ms. Templeton’s. I just extended her poor justification from nutrition, which she doesn’t define, to calories. Calories includes nutrition too, even if only by accident, and I’m not convinced the total lost by restricting the program doesn’t hurt more than help. The point is she COULD have chosen to ask the question right and started collecting data about what is actually bought. Then the program could have been modified on facts instead anecdotes.

    Thanks Scout!

    1. Silence

      I do wish that there were publicly available data about what items are actually purchased using public SNAP funds. I think it would be interesting.

      1. Scout

        Agreed! and where – would also be good to know. It would certainly inform the discussion.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          DSS is appallingly underfunded, and as of a few years ago paid its experienced attorneys $27K a year….you get what you pay for, most of the time!

          1. Doug Ross

            The two numbers FITSnews requested should be immediately available and known by every manager in the department.

          2. Scout

            So if you are abysmally understaffed and your job is to protect/keep children safe, among many other things – which do you do first – answer the media busy body’s question or investigate a report of a dangerous home situation for a child.

            Aren’t you the one that is always saying government should prioritize?

          3. Doug Ross

            It took far longer to come up with their response that they were looking into how long it would take to respond (and how much it would cost) than it would have to answer the question.
            They are lazy and incompetent. And obviously overpaid.

          4. Silence

            I think they have a legal obligation to respond to FOIA requests promptly. 15 days, I think is the usual amount of time.

          5. Doug Ross

            According to FITSnews, it has been more than a month. Two numbers. Surely they have some management report already that has the total expenditures and total recipients. If they don’t, a lot of people should be looking for new jobs. That’s what would happen in the real world.

          6. Scout

            “They are lazy and incompetent. And obviously overpaid.”

            You came to that conclusion awfully quickly with a mighty small data sample. I think you need to develop your ability to consider all the possibilities and even to acknowledge there could be reasons you can’t even conceive of not having all the information.

            Challenge yourself, Doug ! 🙂

            Just to be fair, I’ll go around making snap decisions based on preconceived negative assumptions about how classes of people or society work, for awhile. Here’s one: When people who believe that government always fails are elected to run government they put things in motion to bear out their beliefs such as underfunding agencies to cripple their function and appointing people to run them who don’t believe in or necessarily understand the mission of the agency. That is obviously the case here. Lillian Koller, Haley appointee, refers to the people of South Carolina as “customers” of DSS on her webpage. DSS is not a business. It doesn’t have customers.

          7. Doug Ross

            Rather than being an apologist for poor performers in government, I have a lower set of expectations based on years of interactions with many agencies. DMV, IRS, school systems, Postal Service (worked as a contractor for them for ten years), Secretary of State’s office (worked as a contractor for them for a year), IRS, Federal Judicial System (worked for them for six months). I’ve seen firsthand the waste, fraud, abuse, laziness, and incompetence.

            My job has allowed me to work in a variety of industries across the country over the span of 25 years. As a taxpaying adult who has paid far more into the system than I have received in return, I have enough experience with government to form an opinion. I didn’t start out with this view. It was developed after years of dealing with incompetent bureaucrats – people who hate their jobs but have no competition (nor any personal ambition) to do any better.

            Are there good government employees? Sure. But my experience has been that they are outnumbered by deadwood.

            Let’s see YOU come up with one possible reason why it would take over a month to provide two high level numbers that should be immediately available to anyone working in that office. I can’t think of a single reason why other than laziness or incompetence.

          8. Doug Ross

            “When people who believe that government always fails are elected to run government they put things in motion to bear out their beliefs such as underfunding agencies to cripple their function and appointing people to run them who don’t believe in or necessarily understand the mission of the agency. ”

            Which functions of state government are NOT underfunded in you opinion? How much more in taxes would you feel comfortable paying to get the government you want?

            So much hyperbole… “crippling” doesn’t describe the funding for social programs. Maybe when they cut the estimated 10% fraud in DSS programs, we can start talking about “crippling” effects.

    1. Silence

      Cap’n Crunch cereal is not considered junk food, but the crunchberries are considered junk food. Or are the crunchberries high in anti-oxidants? I can’t remember anymore…

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      I know you are joking, but for the record, experts suggest choosing cereals with certain maximums of sugar, and minimums of fiber that it is highly unlikely anyone would say Cap’n Crunch meets….and that’s not even dealing with the whole paleo crowd who eschew grains…..

      For crunchberries, think “dingleberries”…..

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