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Should Obesity Disqualify Food Stamps for Junk Food?

Tim Boyer's picture

Obesity, food stamps and junk food—three interrelated topics that recently have caused a significant amount of social indigestion as people argue over what appears to be two camps of elitist and paternalistic thought: Anti-hunger advocates believe that food stamp recipients should be allowed to buy whatever food they want, wherever they want to stem off hunger and maintain dignity. Anti-obesity advocates believe that food stamp recipients should be told by the government what they can and cannot buy for the good of their health.

Both camps make good arguments for their respective causes and as a result begs the question of whether obese people who receive food stamps should be disqualified from purchasing junk food with their food stamps? However, could it be that root of the argument is the fact that America is now facing a type of obesity social stigma of racist leanings and extensions?

In a recent National Public Radio (NPR) Talk of the Nation episode, Sherrie Tussler, the director of Milwaukee's free and local food bank and executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, was interviewed about her recent article published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on her opinion on why food stamp recipients should be allowed to purchase food wherever they want.

Ms. Tussler’s main point is that many food stamp recipients live in areas that are “food desert zones” where easy access to grocery stores is not available and therefore limits food stamp bearers to resort to convenience stores and fast food restaurants within their neighborhood for their meals.

According to Ms. Tussler’s article, she states that, “People use the words "hunger" and "starvation" interchangeably. They expect that hungry people should appear like the ads on late-night TV where you can feed a child in a Third World country for 20 cents a day. Then they see an obese child at a local homeless shelter and feel angry because the child is overweight, not because the child is at a homeless shelter. Children and adults who are fed a steady diet of starches, canned vegetables and processed foods will gain weight, but they will still get hungry three times a day. They can be both hungry and fat,” she says adding that, “Hunger has two causes: lack of money for food and lack of access to food. Most people understand the money part. Understanding the lack of access issue would require spending time in a neighborhood different from your own.”

According to federal law, food stamps are limited to the exchange of unprepared food with the provisional exception of people who are disabled, elderly or homeless who may be allowed on a state-by-state basis to use their food stamps at select restaurants. Currently Michigan, California, Arizona and Florida allow food stamps to be used at fast food restaurants.

In a recent USA Today article, Louisville-based Yum! Brands, whose restaurants include Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver's and Pizza Hut, is trying to get restaurants more involved in lobbying toward all states allowing food stamp purchases in their facilities. This has resulted in a sharp division between anti-hunger advocates and health advocates over how food stamps should be used by the poor.

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Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's anti-obesity Rudd Center is quoted being against the idea of extending food stamp use to fast food restaurants, "It's preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition,” he states. However, Ed Cooney, the executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a longtime anti-hunger advocate retaliates with, "They think going hungry is better? . . . I'm solidly behind what Yum! is doing."

During Ms. Tussler’s NPR interview, live on-air responses from the public were overwhelmingly against allowing food stamps to be used at fast food restaurants; and perhaps, were particularly revealing as well as to the reason behind their sentiments.

One caller describes how that he once had to feed his two children using food stamps and that in spite of the difficulties of getting to a food market that he always found a way to get healthy food. The caller stated, “I raised children as a single dad, and I had to have food stamps. And when the children were with me or not, I'd go - on the bus, I had to get fresh vegetables. I had to make my own baby food. I had to buy generic apple juice to water down and give to them for their baby juice…I'd do whatever I had to get to the store, because I look around me and I couldn't afford to take the kid to the doctor for getting sick. And people - my neighbors on food stamps, they did the local thing and they were obese. It was disgusting and sick and scary.”

Another caller responded likewise with, “I think that - well, first of all, you know, everyone's heard of the story about their parents walking uphill both ways in the snow. We heard an earlier caller do that. Her answer [Ms. Tussler’s] to that was some people are disabled or are unable, blah, blah, blah. Like I said, there needs to be a separation between people who are disabled, you know, and people who are able-bodied. If you're able-bodied and you're feeding yourself and your children, you go to any lengths necessary. That means you got to work two-hour - two shifts, whatever you got to do, man. You got to take the bus. You got to walk it. You know, there are people who don't have this all over the world.”

Partly in response to what the callers were saying, Ms. Tussler indicates that perception by others is part of the problem when she says that, “...a lot of times we'll see somebody in the grocery store line picking out unhealthy foods, and it makes us angry. We're thinking about our tax dollars. We're thinking that we're subsidizing that person, and we're judging them for choosing foods that are unhealthy.”

Listening to the interview and the callers, one could not help but feel an uneasy queasiness’ over this debate about food and poverty. It harkens to the days of the mythical “Welfare Queen” of the 1970’s when Ronald Reagan popularized the idea of female welfare recipients as welfare queens who cheated the system in numerous ways including food stamp fraud. While the stereotype was found to be false and racist, the damage had already been done as it shaped the consciousness of many in their perception of who was on welfare and why.

Anti-hunger advocates and anti-obesity advocates both make compelling arguments over the practical reasons for their opinions on what should be done. But under a more microscopic view, are we not basing our opinions on something perhaps more visceral, more primal, more to do with playground social games than the idea of free lunches and a sense of fairness? Are we not skirting the issue by ignoring the Mumu?

Remember the fat kid who got picked last to be on the schoolyard softball team? Remember the heavy girl who did not get asked to dance at the prom? Perhaps as adults we carryover this same prejudice in the name of the rules of the game and in the name of health in deciding who gets to eat what, when. Has obesity become a new form of racism?

Source: NPR Talk of the Nation: Should Food Stamps Buy Fast Food?



You mean when I see all the 300-400 pounders with their 150-200 pound kids pushing their $300 worth of free food out the door at Wal-Mart, it's Wal-Mart's fault? Or my fault as a taxpayer? Let me make something clear - if somebody is 400 pounds it is that fatties fault - nobody else's. If the fatty has an accomplice it is the stupid taxpayers who keep feeding the fatty.
The above comment is stereotypical and "assumes" that obese people are all on food stamps are obese, however "junk food" is hard to determine, For instance while soda, candy, and chips, may qualify as junk food in the minds of folks, have you noticed your bagel of cream juice, welsh grape juice, granola bar, or even a taco which is a dorito? The proposal is unfair because it allows concentrated fruit juices which are little more than sugar and water such as a 38g sugar grape juice and chocolate milkshakes but denies a person a cup of antioxidant tea with a 1/2 teaspoon of honey, despite 10x less calories, it also denies vitaminwater and gatorade, sure folks don't need vitamin water because they have enough nutrients already, but I'm getting the point . In addition the list can go on and on, is a salty pretzel junk food, dark chocolate despite its health benefits, granola which in many cases has little nutrients but fat,greek yogurt with fruit vs. ice cream, or how about chicken and oil or apple pie, clearly fried chicken and mac n cheese are junk but the ingredients or oil,cheese, and poultry, fries are nothing more than oil and potatoes, the USDA rightly rejected the ban.