There’s no doubt that economic downturn has left many Americans struggling, and this is reflected in the rise of families applying for federal assistance programs. Food assistance has especially spiked according to the Congressional Budget Office.

About 45 million Americans — one in seven — applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2011. In 2010, five million fewer people applied for programs like food stamps.

Concurrently, obesity rates among low-income individuals continue to be disproportionately high. With food stamps affecting such a large part of this population, the healthiness and effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has been called into question. Groups advocating for nutrition and health argue taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to fund junk food. While combating growing obesity and helping people develop nutritious eating habits should be a policy goal, regulating what people can and can’t buy with food stamps isn’t the way to do so.

Sen. Ronda Storms (R–Fla.) proposed a bill that would prohibit using food stamps to buy sugary, fatty or highly processed foods. Her proposal bans a broad range: “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,” as reported by The Miami Herald.

Storms defends her bill claiming, “If we’re going to be cutting services across the board, then people can live without potato chips, without store-bought cookies, without their sodas.”

What she fails to mention is that parts of her bill are so restrictive it may make it impossible to purchase something as simple as a birthday cake for a child. Yes, it’s important to be nutritious, but not at the cost of cutting out an entire food group for an individual, simply because they are in a position of dependency and helplessness.

Florida isn’t the first state to propose such a ban. In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban the use of food stamps to buy sugary beverages. He was met with opposition from advocacy groups — like the New York City Coalition for Hunger— for low-income individuals, arguing primarily that it “punishes poor people for the supposed crime of being poor.”

And in a way, that is exactly what such a law would do. Dictating what can and can’t be bought with food stamps is targeting those who are dependent on the social protection. Yes, we want to encourage healthy lifestyles, but forcing people to eat healthy isn’t the way to do so. There are no laws dictating that average Americans can’t go out and buy junk food. Stipulating that those with food stamps specifically can’t is discrimination against society’s most vulnerable.

Additionally, food stamps are rarely enough to sustain a family for an entire month. Even with food assistance, people struggle to make ends meet. Reporter Katie Evarts, from Southern California Public Radio, took a challenge — she spent one week eating on a food stamp budget. Her spending cap? $36.50. Having to buy a week’s worth of groceries with so little put her in a very difficult position. And that was only for one person.

Evarts interviewed a family on food stamps, and their story reveals just how difficult it becomes to balance a food stamp budget. As one recipient says, “I can’t buy as much healthy food as I’d like to buy. It’s expensive. I mean I can buy three weeks’ worth, but other than that you know we have to stick to cardboard boxes and Hamburger Helper and all that kind of stuff.”

As a result, when budgeting food stamps for the month, people tend to maximize their usage. They buy canned food that lasts longer, junk food they can easily find coupons for, and preserved food that can be bought in bulk. Even with food stamps, healthy food is too costly for people to invest in.

Eating healthy should be a national priority. Encouraging nutrition is necessary, especially when the CDC reports that more than one-third of adults and more than 17 percent of children in America are obese. But the way to do so isn’t through compulsion — it’s through education. Being healthy is a choice. It’s a choice we want to encourage people to make, but in the end it’s a choice that is theirs to make.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.
Follow her on Twitter @harshanahata.

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