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Hold the Soda, Pass the Arugula

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Perhaps John Edwards was right; maybe there are two Americas.

In one, government-dependent Americans take to Youtube to sing about everything they can buy with their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, i.e., food stamps. Such hits include "
Swipe My EBT " and " It's Free Swipe Yo EBT ." According to the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, much of the outrageous behavior depicted in the videos is legal. The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 defines “eligible food” to include soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, ice cream, seafood, steak, bakery cakes and certain energy drinks.

In the other, First Lady Michelle Obama appears with the head of Disney to announce that the iconic brand’s media outlets will only advertise food that “align[s] with federal standards to promote fruit and vegetables and limit calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat.” As part of her “Let’s Move” campaign, more than 1,500 schools have adopted healthier menus (the chocolate milk controversy!), McDonalds now gives kids apple slices and there is a garden on the South Lawn.

Instead of focusing her considerable skills on bullying…err…persuading private sector companies to adopt strict nutrition standards, perhaps Mrs. Obama should take aim at taxpayer-subsidized ice cream, potato chips and soda.

The concept of restricting the use of food stamps is not new. In 1964, when President Johnson asked Congress to establish the first permanent food stamp program, the House wanted to prohibit the purchase of soft drinks, luxury foods and luxury frozen foods. Unfortunately, the bill signed by President Johnson considered all items intended for human consumption (except for alcohol and imported foods)eligible.

Times have changed though, and the First Lady has blazed new ground with her multipronged campaign. In 2010, when her husband signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, she said, “school meals” feed “more than 31 million children a day” and “childhood obesity isn’t just a public health issue…it is not just an economic threat -- it is a national security threat as well.”

With 46 million Americans now on food stamps, surely Mrs. Obama can recognize the compelling “public health,” “economic” and “national security” interests in reforming SNAP. Since 2008, spending on the government’s largest food assistance program has doubled to nearly $80 billion a year, half of which goes to individuals who have been dependent for 8.5 years or more.

As the Senate debates the farm and food bill, there is a rare window of opportunity for Mrs. Obama to turn her campaign’s comprehensive nutrition guidelines into a new standard for food stamp benefits. Of course, one look at Disney’s four-page nutrition guideline criteria demonstrates the unworkable nature of aligning the First Lady’s nutritional goals with a massive federal program.

Instead, I would suggest a more modest approach: rather than outline a complex food pyramid and restrict individual food items, the First Lady and lawmakers could simply target the most absurd food categories currently considered eligible.

Remember, cookies, cakes, pastries and salty food in school vending machines were an early target for the First Lady. She claimed, “There is no reason why we can't have water, healthy juice drinks in vending machines, granola bars, trail mix, whole-grain sandwiches.”

Earlier this year, the infamous Ezekiel Emanuel lauded the First Lady’s campaign, which “has already begun to change the way the food sector — producers, restaurants and grocery stores — approaches its youngest customers.” If you buy into Mrs. Obama’s logic that access to foods with “empty calories” like soda undermines the administration’s effort to “enhance the health of the school environment," there is “no reason” that such restrictions should not be placed on food stamp beneficiaries. It is time she – and her husband – paid similar attention to those purchasing food at the expense of their fellow citizens.

According to a Bush-era document, more than one-quarter of all benefits go toward food items not considered “basic.” If that ratio holds true today, taxpayers are spending more than $20 billion a year so food stamp recipients can buy non-basics like soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers and ice cream.

Like most federal programs, SNAP is in dire need of sweeping reforms; however, the types of reforms necessary are unlikely to survive Harry Reid’s Senate or President Obama’s veto pen. In the interim, though, Congress could cut the fat from SNAP. After all, the “physical and emotional health of an entire generation is at stake.”

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