That’s exactly what will happen if New York mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way; food stamp recipients will no longer be able to purchase soda with federal food stamp benefits, pushing for it to be classified off limits much like alcohol and tobacco products. All of this done in the name of improving the public health and those proponents of the measure who claim tax payers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for unhealthy habits contributing to obesity; if passed it will serve as a template for similar legislation across the country. However in addition to concern about whether the law will have any effect on national obesity rates, there is the issues of both discrimination and privacy; famed actress Whoopi Goldberg, co-host of The View, astutely pointed out the potential humiliation for someone in the grocery line as the computer sorts out their groceries denying the soda so others in line immediately know your on food stamps and perhaps not everyone wants their business out there. At the same time as a nation do we have a right to tell even those on assistance what food items they are allowed to buy for themselves and their families and should a campaign against such items begin by targeting disadvantaged people?
The freedom America has always been founded on should say no; it should also protest the drive to classify soda in the same category equally as harmful as alcohol and tobacco when it is clearly not. This is especially important in deciding food stamp allowances because tobacco, while a prohibited purchase under the program, has never been a food item and therefore should be no more eligible to buy using food stamps than a pair of socks. While alcohol is listed as a beverage on menus, in most store shelves its exclusion from food assistance likely has more to do with the potential havoc it can reek on society, in arrests, accidents, criminal behavior fueled by impaired judgment, to say nothing of its propensity toward addiction, than the long term health effects of simple overindulgence. Another problem with the classification lies in the overtly flawed logic being projected suggesting the only thing people, in general, people on food stamps, can or are becoming obese from, is soda, something proven to be untrue. Further, unlike conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver, whose primary cause is alcoholism, many foods, habits can cause health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, oddly enough the filler foods such as beans, rice potatoes, white bread, simple carbohydrates people on assistance are forced to buy to feed themselves, due to lack of funds to make different choices.
From a social standpoint these actions seem alarmingly hypocritical for a program that just recently began giving larger money allotments for food stamp users to buy fresh vegetables and fruits as opposed to the traditional inexpensive caned versions loaded with preservatives, sodium and sugar, equally hypocritical for a nation still working to overhaul school lunch programs to at least offer healthier choices. A sweeping move of this type also presumes every person receiving assistance is obese, every family doing the same contains obese children, again a huge untruth. It feeds into commonly held belief and stereotype that individuals, families on various kinds of assistance are poorly educated, lack self control, make poor decisions in all of life not just eating habits, thus requiring those decisions be made for them. Contrastingly one mother of six admitting she bought soda for her children with food stamps described buying Gatorade, Powerade and bottled water all choices deemed healthy, striking at the very core assumptions made by the bill including a notion that people on food stamps only buy items high in sugar and in excessive quantity. Taking into account the economic fallout of the last two years equating to record numbers of food assistance recipients, it is a slap in the face to those who have worked hard all their lives, work hard now to improve their situations, gain employment who utilize said assistance more for their family than themselves, who would gladly go hungry, but refuse to allow their kids to do so because of their pride. For them it’s life and the government telling them one more thing they can’t have, one more thing they can’t give their kids.
On the practical side it shows clear signs of government officials not thinking things through or not caring whether it is well thought out for something supposedly in the public interest; example such a law would only really prohibit soda consumption on the part of persons receiving maximum food stamp allowances i.e. purchasing all their food on assistance. It does nothing to change the buying habits of those who receive partial monies from assistance furnishing the rest of their food needs out of their own pocket; these families are more likely to get food staples with assistance and buy soda using plain old cash, subverting the bill’s intent entirely. Realistically the proposal could be more damaging to public health and food assistance users because others will simply use there limited monetary resources to procure sugary drinks of their choice regardless of other things they need, especially if they feel they are being unjustly targeted, discriminated against and/or controlled, when for them it becomes a matter of principle not health. If the initiative takes hold then it becomes a question of what’s next; right now the primary target of these types of legislation is soda, but backers have already hinted they don’t intend to stop there. Will the next thing on the food chopping block be juice over a certain sugar content, kids cereals under the same criteria, ice cream or cake, disregarding if it is for a child’s birthday, what no more Halloween candy, how about thanksgiving cranberry sauce, where is the line? Secondly it becomes a question of enforcement; how do you enforce limitations by ingredients, quantity there of? Store computers don’t have the capacity to perform that kind of breakdown neither will stores want to incur the cost of installing computers that do; along those same lines store clerks cannot be asked to examine items in such a way for the sake of time, if nothing else.
So looking at the future extreme, there is a food stamp program but few stores accept it because of the hassle of sorting sanctioned foods from non-sanctioned ones or people don’t get near the benefit from it because so many foods are off limits. That being said, currently the only viable possibility would be to exclude items by brand name, popular kids cereals for instance known to have the highest sugar content. However doing so gives birth to two more very negative potential scenarios; one it excludes well -known brands with high sugar content but not generic or store brands typically bought anyway due to lesser prices, again negating the purpose of the whole thing, or it forces people to buy various brand name items to get juice with no high fructose corn syrup, causing them to be on food stamps and still be malnourished, still go hungry because they can’t buy enough food, something that routinely occurs now without the restrictions completely undermining the original objective of the program from it’s inception to feed poor people, to stave off problems with malnutrition and starvation.
Last but not least, unlike the intrusive policies directed at everyone in the form of proposed blanket taxes on sugary drinks, legislation to post calorie counts of all restaurant dishes, the banning of new drive through fast food in one area of California, taking toys out of kids meals, this change only effects people on assistance, this is blatantly discriminatory targeting them in all the wrong ways. A better way is to help all people in all areas, all income brackets make better choices in food and life. If mayors’ and city officials wanted to do something for the struggling, the disadvantaged they could start by dealing with unsafe, rundown neighborhoods that come into the picture when it isn’t safe for children to go outside and play, when there are no sidewalks for people to walk on causing them to drive everywhere or stay indoors; neighborhoods close to major highways, intersections cause similar issues creating a sedentary lifestyle, thus feeding into the causes of obesity and its related diseases.
Other things that can be done, particularly considering the economy, include how to’s on cooking inexpensive meals, crash courses in coupon clipping, tips like using frozen vegetables instead of canned. And above all else increasing food benefit allotments so those on assistance can make equally healthy choices as other Americans, so they can afford Greek yogurt, with more health benefits over other kinds, feta cheese with less fat and more of the positives of dairy products, as opposed to other cheeses high in saturated fats, giving people the chance to buy something other than large quantities of rice, beans, potatoes, whole grains over simple carbohydrates. This is how we increase the nations heath, increase the health of those in need, not by making so called junk foods off limits simply because you are poor, simply because you need help.