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Archive for October, 2010

Food Stamp Follies

© 2010 Nancy Appleton PhD

The Department of Agriculture has made some interesting distinctions about what is an eligible food on the food stamp program and what isn’t. The program prohibits use of the stamps for alcohol and tobacco products along with various non-food items like pet food, cleaning and household supplies. So far so good, that a program intended to make sure poor people have enough nutritious food to eat would bar the use of food stamps to buy what are essentially recreational chemicals with known health consequences.

The list of approved foods is absurd. Soda, ice cream, candy, and cookies are all considered to be food items and can be bought on the program. These foods all have Nutrition Facts labels classifying them as eligible foods. Energy drinks, which are mostly just sugar and caffeine, are an interesting case as the program allows the ones with Nutrition Facts labels into the program, but bars the ones with Supplement Facts Labels. This distinction also means that poor people can’t use food stamps to buy a multivitamin bottle.

I have spent many years lecturing and writing about sugar and its effect on health including increased obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Now that the mainstream science has caught up with the rest of us, you’d think the government would change the law to categorize these foods with alcohol and tobacco.

Unfortunately, this is the government and changing the law requires a lot of uphill effort. Do you know how to make sure that the research that clearly shows sugar is bad for you isn’t drowned out by bogus research paid for by sugar companies? Do you know how to be heard against the millions spent promoting sugar including campaign contributions?

Mayor Bloomberg of New York City has proposed a local solution by requesting the Department of Agriculture approve the city as a test site for a two-year program that food stamps can’t be used to purchase these sugar-filled foods. Mayor Bloomberg cites scary statistics about how unhealthy people get drinking soda and sugary as a reason to go beyond Federal law governing the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Apparently, one in eight New Yorkers has diabetes and 57-percent of adults and 40-percent of children are overweight or obese.

In San Francisco, the solution is far simpler. Mayor Gavin Newsome has ordered that vending machines on city property stop selling sodas and other sugary drinks. This is an easy solution that doesn’t require more than a signature on an order.

These are small steps that may help make people healthier, but I still want to see more effort put into public education. I want to see classes in schools about health and nutrition. Well, small steps are good for now.

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