Republican legislators are pushing a bill that would restrict what food stamp recipients could buy with their government assistance. Regardless of their motivations, they may be on to something.
The Republicans are doing this under the rubric of promoting healthy foods, but a cynical person might suggest that when their bill specifically outlaws lobster (as it does), they might just be trying to score points in the culture wars. Raising the image of a person on assistance using her food stamps to buy lobster (whether or not that has ever happened) certainly plays into a stereotype reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” mythology.
Adding to the cynicism is the fact that this is probably all just symbolic. The restrictions could only happen with a waiver from the federal government, which has never happened.
In what is probably a first, the legislation is opposed by both PepsiCo and the Hunger Task Force. Pepsi apparently wants to protect the God-given right of every American regardless of his or her income to purchase and eat Fritos. After all, they’re delicious. The Hunger Task Force probably would prefer that families on assistance not eat junk food; they just see this as paternalistic.
But there is a legitimate point behind the Republicans’ posturing. The poor tend to have more chronic health problems, including obesity and its ramifications, and some of that is caused by bad diets.
What needs to be recognized, though, is that some of that unhealthy diet is due to a lack of fresh, healthy food in easy reach. Many poor neighborhoods, including some in Madison, have been described as food deserts. Where there are no full-service grocery stores and where access to transportation is a problem, residents are left with the limited choices available in places like Walgreens and McDonald’s.
But what if the emphasis on what people eat wasn’t just punitive or paternalistic? What if the state developed a real comprehensive food policy? Food could be the focal point for the kind of family and community building that might solve a lot of problems beyond just direct health impacts.
For example, the program might involve funding and expertise for more community gardens and urban-supported agriculture. There is precedent right here in Wisconsin with Will Allen’s “Growing Power” project in Milwaukee. Allen won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for his work there.
Bigger urban farms could even become suppliers to large embedded institutions like hospitals and universities. Check out Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives for a good example of how a large urban farm can provide not just hyper-local sources of healthy food but some family-supporting jobs as well.
In addition, the state might consider financial incentives to get full-service grocery stores to locate in poor neighborhoods as long as they provide a certain minimum square footage for fresh vegetables and the like. My bet is that the long-run payoff for that kind of neighborhood investment in dollars saved in health care and social costs down the line would far exceed the initial subsidy.
There could also be more resources invested in local public health offices that could organize neighborhoods around cooking classes and community dinners, along the lines of what the Madison and Dane County Public Health Department has done for years on the southwest side.
And of course food is not just about eating. A family that comes together at least once a day to cook a meal and eat it around the same table is likely to become a stronger unit, and that will benefit all of society.
Then if the state still wanted to get a federal waiver to limit the use of food stamps to healthy options — after it provided the infrastructure to make available those healthy options and the public awareness and education that went with it — the feds might consider actually allowing the state to do that. And a lot of progressives might even support it.
There is the nub of a good idea here. Use food — something fundamental that everyone needs every day — as the entry point to habits and lifestyle choices that could lead people out of poverty. If the goal were serious, we could do this in Wisconsin because we already have some of the templates proven and in place.
But if the goal is to just score some mean-spirited political points, it’s just so much political junk food.