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Food stamps and the right to make unhealthy decisions

January 31, 2012 |  2:55 pm

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Is it fair to mandate to food stamp recipients what they can and can't eat? Sen. Ronda Storms (R-Fla.) thinks so, which is why she authored a bill that imposes restrictions on what people can buy with federal aid. Times reporter Richard Fausset writes:

A few months ago, Storms, 46, started noticing that some fellow shoppers were using federal food stamp money to purchase a lot of unhealthful junk. And it galled her -- at a time when Florida was cutting Medicaid reimbursement rates, public school funding and jobs -- that people were indulging in sugary, fatty, highly-processed treats on the public dime.

Naturally, Storms' bill hit a nerve.

In an editorial, our board writes:

The list in Storms' bill is so long -- foods containing trans fats, sweetened beverages, "sweets" from jello to doughnuts, and "salty snacks" -- that it seems to include most items not found in the produce or meat aisles. The notion that poor people have any more time to cook from scratch than other Americans who rely on prepared supermarket "junk" food is clearly absurd, and infantilizing them by restricting their choices in this way is demeaning. […]

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.

On our discussion board, several readers complain that beggars can't be choosers. "When you eat on someone else's dime you eat what's provided and say thanks rather than whine about how oppressed you are," writes David in LA. Furthermore, argues kroneborge, "I strongly support the right of people to make unhealthy decisions, they should be able to smoke, eat and do whatever drugs they want as long as they pay for it and their healthcare themselves. But if I am paying for it, then they need to be living right."

Question is, who determines what it means to be "living right"? It could also be argued that obesity and diabetes aren't the only health risks associated with our food consumption. 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.

That's all beside the point, though. "The point of the food stamp program is to stop vulnerable Americans from going hungry, not to impose some sort of national dietary regime," writes Elizabeth Nolan Brown on Blisstree. "And while it may seem more helpful (in a sort-of paternalistic way) to limit what folks on food stamps can buy to certain healthy or cost-efficient foods, what good does that do anyone if those foods aren't things a food stamp user will actually eat?"

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: La Casa Market in East Los Angeles. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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