In the raging national debate about how to combat America’s obesity epidemic, one of the touchiest topics is whether taxpayer-funded food stamps should be used to provide junk food for the poor.
During the last state legislative session, Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, was attacked by both liberals and conservatives when she proposed that food stamps shouldn’t pay for such items as sodas, candy bars and chips. “I got it from both sides of the aisle,” she laments about Republican and Democratic opposition.
Democrats attacked her for trying to tell poor people how to behave. Republicans said she was advocating that big government should order people to eat their broccoli.
Even so, Storms and many in the national anti-obesity fight are not going to let the matter die. Americans’ fat now costs more in healthcare than the effects of cigarettes, and some are urging a crusade against obesity similar to that mounted by anti-smoking forces.
“It took 50 years of anti-tobacco campaigns to lower the smoking rate from 50 percent to 20 percent” of the population, notes John Peters, chief strategy officer for the University of Colorado Center for Health and Wellness. And he says it could take that long to reverse the epidemic of obesity, which now afflicts 35.7 percent of American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can lead to lifelong chronic health problems like diabetes and hypertension.
Like the anti-tobacco campaigns in the past, the anti-obesity drive is becoming highly politicized. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on supersized soft drinks, and the talk of a national tax on soft drinks has grown so intense that American Medical Association’s House of Delegates last week decided that the proceeds of such a tax, if enacted, should be dedicated to improving consumer healthcare education.
In the food stamp debate, it galls leaders like Storms that taxpayer funds can be used to exacerbate the problem since obesity rates among the poor tend to be higher than among the affluent. “It just makes no sense to me. They can’t purchase Fred Flintstone vitamins with food stamps, but a Mountain Dew is fine,” Storms says.
Plenty of people disagree with her. During the last legislative session, her bill was opposed by big-business lobbyists from the beverage industry, convenience stores and Corn Refiners of America, producers of the high-fructose corn syrup that adds so many calories to foods.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Florida Partnership to End Childhood Hunger said Storms’ proposal “creates new hurdles for families already struggling to meet their most basic daily needs.”
Since food stamps are a federal program, any local proposal to alter the provisions must be approved by Washington. The most publicized effort so far came two years ago when Bloomberg asked the federal government for a two-year pilot program banning the use of food stamps for sugary drinks. The Obama administration said no, because the prohibition would be too hard to administer.
“It’s an incredibly contentious issue,” says Candace Young of the Philadelphia-based Food Trust, which is working with Miami-Dade health officials in trying to bring healthier foods to poor areas. “We don’t have a stance on that issue. Half the people feel passionately one way, the other half feel passionately the other way.”