In January, Florida state senator Ronda Storms (R) introduced a bill that would limit what items recipients of food stamps could purchase. No longer would they be able to use the program to pay for sodas, chips, candy and other snack food. Liberals screamed discrimination against the poor and some conservatives said Storms was on a slippery slope that would lead to government telling all of us what we can and cannot eat. One Republican colleague dubbed Storms' proposal the "no Twinkie left behind" bill.
It's time for both sides to take a deep breath. The food stamp program -- a misnomer at this point since most states use a debit card system to provide benefits -- began during the Great Depression. Its purpose was two-fold: to feed the destitute and to provide agricultural subsidies to struggling farmers. As anyone who has ever seen pictures of Dust Bowl refugees from that period can attest, poor people were often emaciated, sometimes starving. Today, the biggest nutritional problem for the poor is that they are overweight, not underweight. The rich are thin and the poor, all too often, obese.
When individuals are spending their own money to inflict health problems on themselves, there isn't much anyone can do. And a look at statistics on weight in the U.S. shows that a lot of Americans are making bad choices. More than half of all American adults are overweight, and 36 percent are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control. But when some of these people are using other people's money to pay for their bad choices, it's more than a private decision.
The whole idea behind the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name of the food stamps program, is to ensure that the nutritional needs of beneficiaries are being met. A six-pack of sodas and a bag of chips not only don't provide nutrition -- they inflict actual harm. Instead of providing protein and complex carbohydrates, these snacks contain empty calories filled with too much sugar or chemical substitutes, salt and simple carbs that the body transforms into more sugar. And children are especially at risk.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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