Should food stamps pay for Cheetos?

In Wednesday’s Opinion pages, the editorial board laments Congress’ failure to pass a new farm bill to replace the one that expires at the end of this month. “Insiders expect our paralyzed Congress to pass a one-year extension of the old farm bill rather than a new one, but eventually this country will have to address how much it is willing to pay to prevent hunger and to keep poor children nutritionally stable enough to pay attention in class,” the board writes. “Even in the face of an economic downturn that’s causing food stamp participation to skyrocket, feeding the hungry should be considered a minimum requirement for a civilized, developed nation.”

The question remains, though: What should food stamps pay for?

Earlier this year,the board took Florida Sen. Ronda Storms to task for putting forth a bill that would limit what recipients could purchase with their food stamps. In essence, the fresh foods found around the perimeter of most grocery stores would be fair game under the bill, but much of the packaged foods found along the aisles would be off limits.

"[I]nfantilizing them by restricting their choices in this way is demeaning” the board argued. “The best way to prevent people from making bad food choices is to give them proper nutritional information. But for the government to reach into their supermarket carts is downright -- dare we say it? -- socialistic.”


I disagree.

The food stamp program, funded with federal money, is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Emphasis on the nutrition.

We hear plenty about how unhealthy, high-calorie food is contributing to an obesity epidemic that has resulted in far too many innocent people suffering and dying from conditions including diabetes and heart disease. Yes, innocent people, hooked on food designed to turn consumers into addicts. (Do you know how much high-fructose corn syrup is hiding in our food, in products you wouldn’t even realize have been sweetened with an addictive substance?)

Food stamp recipients can’t use their EBT cards to purchase alcohol and tobacco. But they can buy hot dogs, which some doctors say are as detrimental to health as smoking. That just doesn’t make any sense.

What we don’t hear enough about, even in health-conscious Los Angeles, is that eating the right foods can drastically improve lives and lifespans. The message in the “Forks Over Knives” documentary is that we should eat to live, not live to eat.

It would be impossible to agree on what constitutes the “wrong” foods. As I wrote in January, “If you’re going to go about banning risky foods, why not put the kibosh on Florida tomatoes too? And microwaveable popcorn? Or milk, poultry and red meat? Or food that comes in cans? Most people know that chips are bad for you, but I doubt there are a lot of people out there who’ve ever considered that a can of chicken soup could be toxic.”

But certainly we can agree that food stamp recipients should be encouraged to purchase organic produce with their vouchers, food that’s low in fat and calories, and rich in vitamins and minerals. In other words, food that’s nourishing.

I don’t mind Sen. Storms’ initiative to impose limits on what food stamps can buy. Nor am I troubled by New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban. Making healthy food more accessible than junk food could save lives. "[R]egulations make it easier for people to eat healthfully without having to think about it. They make the default choice the healthy choice. Most people choose the default, no matter what it is,” writes Food Politics’ Marion Nestle for the Atlantic. Just look at the research.


That’s not to say people shouldn’t indulge now and again. I certainly do. I just don’t think food stamps should pay for things like Snickers bars.

Instead of restrictions, though, a more productive approach might be as simple as making food stamps worth more at farmers markets or on whole foods at the grocery store. Think of it like coupons baked into the healthiest food options. As Ben Gardner, the founder of Linkwell Health, told the Washington Post: “Healthcare is a mystery to almost everyone. But coupons are a currency that everybody understands.”


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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier