Food aid fight lacks substance

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: January 9 2014 | 8:59 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:50 am in

By Todd Dorman


Editor's note: This column was written before it was announced that Mariannette Miller-Meeks had resigned from her position.

Iowaís public health director decided to Do the Dew, but without due diligence.

ďThe No. 1 food item bought with food stamps in Iowa is Mountain Dew,Ē Director Mariannette Miller-Meeks told a global audience at the World Food Prize Symposium. The trouble is, as Statehouse journalist Mike Wiser reported over the weekend, thatís not true. Or, at least, Miller-Meeksí office says she canít recall where it was she gleaned that sugary assertion.

Itís unfortunate. But itís not really surprising, given the fact that we seem to have so little thirst for real facts when it comes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. We want grocery store checkout line tales of crab legs and filet mignon. Glimpses and glances and urban legends tell us all we need to know about the 422,000 Iowans who get SNAP help.

So of course, politicians play along. So what if 72 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person or someone who is disabled? Who cares that 60 percent of SNAP families with children include an adult who is working, and 87 percent include an adult who worked during the year before or the year after receiving benefits? SNAP, the narrative goes, is hopelessly flawed. Deep cuts are the only real solution.

And, of course, in response to that, folks on the left defend SNAP as virtually flawless and untouchable. The only real problem is that weíre not spending enough.

But in reality, nutrition is a problem.

Last spring, the global research firm NPD Group released a ďFood and Beverage Consumption StudyĒ showing that SNAP clients and recipients of Women Infants and Children, or WIC, benefits skip more meals, eat half as many salads, drink more sweetened beverages and eat less fruit than other consumers. NPD also found that SNAP pumped $70 billion into the grocery industry during the height of the recession.

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its survey showing that although SNAP recipients eat more fruit than other low-income people who donít receive assistance, overall, they eat slightly fewer healthful foods, including vegetables and whole grains, than non-recipients.

I donít like the idea of nutrition assistance being spent on stuff thatís not nutritious. But itís a tough problem to tackle. Itís the sort of problem that would benefit from a thoughtful bipartisan effort by those who want SNAP clients to eat better and those who donít want money wasted.

Barring recipients from buying junk food is an option. Trouble is, with hundreds of thousands of grocery items available, deciding whatís junk and whatís healthful is no small task. New rules also risk pulling investigators away from chasing real, significant fraud to become the pop police.

Incentives may work better. In Philadelphia, SNAP recipients who buy $5 worth of farmers market produce get a $2 credit toward more fruits and vegetables. On the other side of the coin, small penalties could discourage buying too much soda or other items.

There are solutions, the kind of stuff that would attract a consensus. But it means trading fizzy fables for a discussion that offers more substance and sustenance.

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