The number of Americans receiving food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has ballooned in the past five years--from 26 million people in 2007 to more than 44 million people today, according to the latest numbers. That means the government has a hold over what one in seven U.S. citizens are and aren't allowed to purchase for consumption--and could feasibly use that power to force them to eat healthier.
Currently, New York City is in a full-fledged food stamp battle with the soft-drink industry, as the city attempts to make it illegal to use government money to buy delicious, fattening soda. As long as local governments are determined to get all Big Brother on making sure food stamp recipients use their subsidies wisely, we have some suggestions for products that shouldn't be covered by the SNAP program. Note: It's highly unlikely that any of these things will come to pass, because any exemption from current food stamp guidelines would have to come with federal approval (and the lobby of companies that make unhealthy food is very powerful).
Tap water is generally plentiful and clean. We do not live in a country where the tap water is incredibly unsafe for consumption; let's encourage people to take advantage of all the effort that goes into making that happen. There is one major caveat to this: Some people really do have unsafe tap water (people who live near fracking sites, for example). So a ban like this would have to at least have to be county-specific. But if you live in cities like New York City and San Francisco, you should revel in your clean tap water, and save your food stamps for other things.
Mayor Bloomberg may be on to something with his proposed soft-drink ban for New York. If passed, the ban would prevent people from using food stamps to buy carbonated and non-carbonated beverages that
are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or sugar and have more than 10 calories per eight-ounce serving. Is this over the top? Quite likely. But it's an interesting thought experiment: What would happen to obesity and diabetes rates if soda was taken off the food-stamp approval list?
Like a soda ban, this is probably over the top. But should government subsidies really be paying for your Snickers habit? As with the soda ban, a ban on candy might just lead manufacturers to develop similar products (like a chocolate-covered, peanut-filled granola bar) at the same price, for the same market. Ideally, though, they'd instead start pushing healthy products as junk food--like some people are doing for baby carrots.
Food stamps are intended to "allow households to purchase a set of
low-cost foods that meet current Federal nutrition
recommendations," according to the USDA. One fancy lobster would suck up a good portion of a monthly food stamp allowance--and if you can afford to do that, you should just use cash. Not that poor people shouldn't get to enjoy lobster. They just shouldn't use our tax dollars.
Instead, Use Stamps At The Farmer's Market
The generic complaint against farmers' markets is that the food is too expensive to serve everyone who needs food. But, lo and behold, SNAP recipients are legally allowed use their food stamps to purchase food at farmer's markets. The practice is only now gaining popularity because paper food-stamp coupons have been replaced by special debit cards, and many farmer's markets only accept cash. This is the kind of thing we would like to see more of: widespread access to healthy, fresh foods that are reasonably priced (on a good day). It certainly beats bottled water.
[Photo by NCReedplayer]