What's so bad about eating good food?

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Note --- The bill passed through the Assembly. Disturbingly 13 Democrats voted yes for it, including several who I normally credit with having much more sense than to jump on this bandwagon. If your representative was among them you might want to tell them what you think. I also note that in the last day before passage multiple amendments were offered to make it slightly less awful, including allowing the purchase of anything made on a Wisconsin farm, any kind of milk, or any kind of cheese. These were, of course, tabled for being too sensible and perhaps out of a fear that they might create Wisconsin farming jobs.

The state assembly is today considering AB 110. This is a bill sponsored by Dean Kaufert (R, Neenah) regarding food that can be purchased on the SNAP program (called Foodshare in Wisconsin).  This is the program that most of us think of as food stamps. Healthy food is a great thing, and I certainly understand that there may be good reasons to try to make sure that people who are on financial assistance are eating well with the taxpayer-funded money going to them.

That being said - this is yet another in a series of ill-considered bills being introduced into the legislature that almost certainly stand no chance of actually being implemented. These bills waste the efforts of the state legislature, waste our tax dollars, and seem to serve no purpose other than to be divisive. Let's look at a few of the problems, since clearly the Republicans in the legislature aren't interested in examining the effects of their own legislation.

This bill attempts to make sure that food stamp recipients are not frittering their food dollars away on junk food.  It does this by requiring that 2/3 of all of the food stamp money they use in stores is spent on nutritious food. This has the sound of the sort of bill that everyone would get behind but ---

  • It does this by defining "healthy food" as food that is approved for the current WIC program (with a few additions). This is a very odd set of rules that defines food that is intended to help supplement the food  of pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. The rules are fairly arbitrary, and appear to be designed as much as anything to promote foods produced by big agriculture in the US as to be nutritious. They're not rules that were intended to define healthy food for an entire family. I'm on the board of a local food co-op, a group that is genuinely interested in promoting healthy food habits. Most of the foods in our store are not foods approved by WIC, for any number of reasons.  Most organic foods are excluded. Brown eggs (happens most of our eggs are brown) are forbidden. We sell (you're not gonna believe this) potatoes - yes, potatoes, junk food supreme. 
  • This will put a number of burdens on stores. Many stores do not accept WIC coupons because of the overhead involved. Food needs to be coded for being eligible or not. Stores need to stock foods they would not normally stock so they can meet the requirements. This law in particular is burdensome due to the "2/3 rule". Stores will need to re-program their point of sale systems to handle the sales. I can foresee endless wrangling at the checkouts - "I'll trade you that bag of chips for a can of yams. Now let's see if the register will let you check out".  Stores may well decide to stop taking SNAP benefits rather than deal with the government-required hassle.  I can hear the co-op's IT director having a coronary right now.
  • Let's face it - people are embarrassed by being on Foodshare. Despite what we hear from the legislature, people are genuinely unhappy to have to receive assistance. People try to hide their EBT card at the checkout. Imagine how much more difficult that will becomes when they have to guess which assortment of foods will be allowed without setting off the food police alarm.
  • This is another of those bills that is probably going to actually go nowhere. The feds will have to approve a waiver for the state to do this.  Other states have tried with much more reasonable bills. New York, for example, has tried to have soda banned from their program (in my estimation a much more reasonable rule than what is being proposed here) and it was turned down. The bill now also includes an amendment that requires a study of the costs to business for implementation.  It almost certainly will not pass through these hoops, even if the Senate passes it as well. I keep wondering where that laser-focus on jobs has gone, when all of these bills on private behavior keep becoming the priority.
  • This is another of those bills based on an anecdote. Kaufert says "It's wildly popular," Kaufert said of the bill. "It's one of those street or sidewalk issues where everyone has a story (about FoodShare problems)." ...

    "Nobody knows anything except anecdotally," Kaufert said of current FoodShare spending. "That's part of the problem." It is in fact the whole problem.  Public policy should not be determined by "something I heard from a guy".  This idea seems as much as anything to be in the series of stories about welfare queens and other stereotype-preserving myths. Please let's shed some light on the subject first so that we can make policy based on reality rather than ideology.

  • The bill completely ignores the realities of the food market. Many of the people on assistance live in food deserts. They could not buy healthy food no matter how motivated they were. When there's no "real" grocery store within reach, what's a person supposed to do? Order their milk from Amazon?
  • The food selections make no sense for a lot of people. They mostly assume people are up for food preparation. Healthy frozen food combinations are not allowed.  Soup?  No way. Would you really deny your elderly parents a chance at a can of soup or a frozen dinner when that's realistically all they are up to cooking?
  • As I said, I'm the last guy to be against healthy food. Let me mention my trip to the store yesterday. I was in one of the big local supermarkets and could not help but notice that the foods that are WIC approved have yellow labels on the shelves. In the bread department (about 20 feet of shelf) there were 2 approved breads. One fairly cheap, one fairly expensive. I'll be damned if I could figure out how these breads were more "healthy" than the others (okay, I actually do know, I've read the rule.  They're labeled 100% whole wheat).  I hope nobody eats any of those other breads, guaranteed to cause instant disease or death. Only white eggs that are not organic or cage-free. In actuality, this bill has almost nothing to do with what most of us would recognize as "healthy eating".

I'm all for good food.  If we really want to fix this, why not start by re-considering our federal food policy, which guarantees that a Big Mac will always be cheaper and more available than a bowl of broccoli rather than trying to stop people from buying what they want to feed their families.  This isn't a law about health, or even money. It serves only to preserve stereotypes and punish the most vulnerable in our society. It fits right in with the current agenda.