Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Food Question

Earlier this month, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg made his latest move in his anti-obesity campaign by requesting permission from the USDA to ban food stamp use toward the purchase of soda and sugar drinks. The news has generated public outcry from the beverage industry and from some less likely critics, including an expert from the Center for Science in the Public Interest who cautioned against stigmatizing the poor. (On the organization's blog, however, they do advocate for a "sin tax" on soda and such items.) Today's Week in Review section of the Times focuses on another group of critics: anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates.

The Food Stamp Act was intended to bridge the gap between farm surplus and undernourished city dwellers. It was passed in 1964 under LBJ and according to the Times:

Food stamps were designed to enlarge the choices of poor and hungry people, rather than to limit them to the most nutritious items. Alcoholic beverages and tobacco were banned. But otherwise, the stamps were to be used to buy “almost any ordinary food,” according to news accounts at the time.

The result was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, run by the USDA to which Bloomberg has appealed. Groups opposing the ban seem to be concerned over what they perceive as the federal government's attempt to further control individual behavior. As a nation built on the principle of personal liberty, perceived threats cause great alarm. Bloomberg is no stranger to this type of criticism, having defined his mayoral career on public health initiatives that banned the use of trans fats, prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants and required food establishments to label calories. But what makes the food stamp question different is what some believe to be a prescription for what poor people may or may not eat. But at the heart of the matter is the question of food. Food stamps should be extended toward the acquisition of food, but what qualifies as food?

The answer is not so clear. Is food anything that may be eaten or consumed? One might argue that this broad definition is in fact what constitutes food. But the Webster dictionary defines food as something much more specific: "material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy." If we use this definition, then food becomes far more limited to those substances that provide nourishment, energy and nutritional value. Regardless of the merit of current research on soda and its link to obesity, and the increasing health care costs associated with obesity and diabetes, soda - under this definition - is only partly considered food. It contains calories for energy, but that is all. If we were a society in which our most vulnerable members were underweight and malnourished then perhaps soda's empty calories might could arguably minimal benefits. But considering that 57% of adults and 40% of children in NYC are overweight or obese and that 1 in 8 adults in the city has diabetes, soda is not only unnecessary, but should be discouraged. The ban would not go that far and remove soda from store shelves. In an Op-Ed piece by the New York City and New York State health commissioners, both emphasized that people are free to purchase soda if they choose but food stamps should not cover the cost. And this seems to be more in line with the spirit of the food stamp program's goals. The USDA's tagline for SNAP (a nutrition assistance program) claims, "We help put healthy food on the table for over 40 million people each month." In this light Bloomberg isn't trying to change the nature of the food stamp program, he's simply aiming to enforce it.

Food is more than just nutrients: carbs, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals. But a program that is meant to provide access to "food" should provide these things at the very least.

No comments:

Post a Comment