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.”
When The Miami Herald asked a White House spokeswoman how first lady Michelle Obama, the administration’s leader in combating obesity, stood on the issue, the official response came quickly: “No comment.”
To at least some food stamp recipients, however, it makes sense to prohibit junk foods. “I can agree with that,” says Gertrude Sturrup, 36, a North Miami-Dade mother of four. “Better to spend the money on fruits and vegetables.”
One major problem: Coming up with a definition of junk food. Should it be done by a calorie measure? A sweetness measure? Sen. Storms’ proposal would have banned “foods containing trans fats; sweetened beverages, including sodas; sweets, such as Jell-O, candy, ice cream, pudding, popsicles, muffins, sweet rolls, cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobblers, pastries, and doughnuts; and salty snack foods, such as corn-based salty snacks, pretzels, party mix, popcorn, and potato chips.”
But nutritionists consider popcorn (varieties not laden with butter and salt) a healthy whole grain that’s high in fiber and low in calories, and some frozen pops are made with artificial sweeteners and are low-calorie.
John Diaz, who owns the Diaz Supermarket in Opa-locka, where 30 percent of his gross receipts come from food stamps, says a junk food prohibition makes sense to taxpayers, but he wonders how he would enforce it. A cashier would need to memorize huge numbers of items that would have to be rejected for food stamp payments.
Tony Jorges, a district manager for Winn-Dixie, says that for a large supermarket chain it would be easy to program the cashiers’ scanners to recognize what qualified for food stamps and what didn’t, but he could imagine outbursts from customers when they learned that they would have to pay out-of-pocket for many items. Such a situation could be a “nightmare,” Jorges says.
Just as adamant is Ronnie Othman, who runs Monar Market, a convenience store in Liberty City, where most of his clientele opt for the foods that Storms wants to prohibit. “They want to shut us down,” Othman says of Storms and her supporters.
Storms points out that the present food stamp act already prohibits a long list of items, including alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, pet foods, soaps, vitamins and cosmetics. She doesn’t see why it would be so hard to add some junk foods to that list.
“I just think it’s an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money,” she says.