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Lawmaker Wants to Make Low-Income People Healthier By Restricting Choices

Lawmaker Wants to Make Low-Income People Healthier By Restricting Choices

Written by Tara Culp-Ressler

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) proposed a bill on Tuesday that would amend the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that low-income Americans can’t use it to buy unhealthy food, despite his previous opposition to public health initiatives under Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. The GOP lawmaker says that the stricter standards will prevent the government from funding unhealthy purchases like sugary drinks.

Under Roe’s proposed legislation, low-income people on SNAP would have to adhere to the guidelines that another government assistance program — the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program — already requires. In order to be eligible for WIC coverage, food purchases must meet detailed standards. For example, breakfast cereal must be primarily whole grain, contain certain levels of iron, and contain less than 21.2 grams of sugar. Bread must be whole wheat. Canned soups or baked beans with meat are not allowed.

“As a physician, I realize the importance of healthy eating, and as an obstetrician, I’ve seen how the WIC program helps empower families receiving assistance to use taxpayer dollars to purchase healthy, wholesome foods,” Roesaid in a statement about his new bill. “By giving SNAP recipients more nutritious choices, we can take a meaningful step towards ending hunger in America.”

But this type of initiative doesn’t actually give low-income people more healthy choices; it actually takes choices away. Instead of empowering SNAP recipients to choose healthy options, it forbids them from making unhealthier ones. And that’s an important distinction because unhealthier, processed food products tend to be cheaper per calorie than higher-quality, fresh food.

When struggling Americans try to make their SNAP benefits stretch — even though the assistance program is intended to be supplemental, it typically provides low-income families’ entire monthly food budgets — they can typically make them stretch farther when they opt for lower quality groceries. Furthermore, many low-income people live in what’s known as “food deserts,” or areas where there’s very limited access to well-stocked grocery stores or fresh produce. The average food stamp recipient lives about 1.8 miles awayfrom the closest grocery store, and may have limited transportation options. For those people, it’s easier to shop at local corner stores and bodegas that may not have a wide range of healthy products.

Anti-hunger advocates oppose legislation like Roe’s specifically for those reasons. Instead, they say that a much more effective policy would be to help address some of the structural issues at the root of health disparities, like making healthier food more affordable.

For instance, the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which was first launched in 2011, gives SNAP recipients a discount on healthier options — for every dollar they spend on healthy food, they earn 30 cents back to spend on other SNAP-eligible items. That pilot program has proven to be extremely successful. The federal government recently reported that it encouraged the participants to buy 25 percent more vegetables with their food stamps. Seventy percent of households said that healthy food was more affordable under the system, and a staggering 95 percent said they wanted to continue the program.

Despite his current focus on controlling how low-income Americans grocery shop, Roe hasn’t been such a champion for public health initiatives that apply to everyone across the economic spectrum. When the USDA recently overhauled school lunch standards to encourage kids to eat healthier cafeteria food, Roe was one of several Republicans who claimed it represented an “overreach of government” that forced students to go hungry. Thanks to the outcry, the USDA ended up being forced to loosen the standards.

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

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3:01AM PDT on Mar 28, 2014

Thank you

6:52PM PDT on Sep 20, 2013

I am torn, since I see a HUGE amount of people on food stamps going through the line with nothing but candy, donuts and sodas... if the government is paying the bill they DO have a say in what you spend their money on. I get food stamps, and we eat all that we can organic. Buying junk food not only doesn't actually make you less hungry, it makes you eat way more than you normally would, thus making you have to buy more. A full healthy meal fills you up, and too many people don't care enough about their children to (gasp) make healthy lifestyle changes. If you expect the government to foot the bill you should adhere to the guidelines, and if the guidelines mean you have to choose healthy alternatives then thats that. people go into gas stations and buy $15 of soda and candy bars on food stamps for their two kids... wasting it when it would be best to eat healthy food and CHEAPER, since I can cook a healthy meal for that sum, a whole meal, not a sugary nasty processed snack that leaves you wanting more

10:05PM PDT on Sep 19, 2013 every one of you who have made insulting, nasty, resentful comments here...and who consider yourselves to be "Christian"....

"Inasmuch as ye have done it to these, the least of my bretheren, ye have done it unto me."

9:26PM PDT on Sep 19, 2013

Every single person, whether average moron or Republican politician (but I repeat myself) who thinks SNAP should be cut back or ended should be required by law to live on it for 5 years. Then when the only foods that can come close to actually getting you fed and which have caused you to get fat because of the poor nutritional quality has destroyed your health, then and only then would you have a rational opinion.

I won't tell you to keep your ignorant opinions to yourself because it's important that decent people get to see your ignorance and lack of any shred of decency for the insanity it is. But one thing is sure, there is no such thing as a real Christian (or Muslim or any other religion) conservative. The American version of conservatism is a sickness. Other countries have the same strain of idiocy in conservatives, but in those countries it isn't endemic as it is here. They think ours are stupid.

9:18PM PDT on Sep 19, 2013

There are many truths by which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home.

John Stuart Mill

4:34AM PDT on Sep 18, 2013

john h. Yes, that's precisely what your comment is, Bulldookey.

2:31AM PDT on Sep 18, 2013

Thanks for sharing.

2:01PM PDT on Sep 17, 2013

Michael M.
“Make up your mind you stupid repuke! You object to Michelle Obama’s plan to eat healthy and NOW you want big government involvement when it comes to SNAP.”

amen! And if president Obama came out with the same restriction on SNAP the righties would scream bloody murder.

2:37AM PDT on Sep 17, 2013


10:12AM PDT on Sep 16, 2013


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