The Universal Notebook: No such thing as a (sugar-)free lunch

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One of the very few initiatives undertaken by Gov. Paul LePage and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew that I actually approve of is their effort to ban the purchase of junk food with food stamps.

But the LePage-Mayhew junk-food ban doesn’t go far enough.

LePage and Mayhew are asking the federal government for a waiver that would allow Maine to prohibit the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds to purchase soft drinks and candy. The rationale is that Maine spent $1.5 million (misprinted as $115 million in the Portland papers) on obesity-related Medicaid medical claims over the past year, and 88 percent of the people on Medicaid receive SNAP benefits. The state spends an additional $4.6 million a year on nutritional education programs for SNAP recipients.

“If we’re going to spend millions on nutrition education for food stamp recipients,” Mayhew said in a DHHS press release, “we should stop giving them money to buy candy and soda. Maine is facing an obesity epidemic, especially among its low-income population, and we should be solving that problem rather than enabling it.”

SNAP junk-food bans have also been sought in one form or another by California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has thus far refused to grant state waivers, citing studies that show that people on food stamps consume sweets at a lower rate than the general population and that restricting SNAP funds would not have the desired effect because recipients would simply spend their own money on candy and soda.

Odd that when first lady Michelle Obama began waging a war on childhood obesity and helped pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (the law that got junk food out of school lunch programs) conservatives howled about loss of personal responsibility and the creation of a nanny state. Former fat man Rush Limbaugh even had the temerity to suggest that Mrs. Obama was too overweight to be an advocate for healthy eating. Wonder what El Rushbo would have to say about our grande governor?

Now that the Republican war on the poor has launched its assault on poor nutrition, telling people what they should eat suddenly makes good economic and public health sense to them. And they are right.

In the United States, 17 percent of children and 35 percent of adults are obese. One in three American adults has pre-diabetic elevated blood sugar levels. Diabetes-related health care problems cost the U.S. $245 billion in medical costs and lost wages in 2012. So America has a serious sweet problem.

Having apparently established a bipartisan consensus that the government has a legitimate public health interest in what Americans eat, we just need to get serious about legislating healthy eating. First we took junk food out of school lunches. Now we want to take junk food out of the food stamp program. But what we really ought to do is just take junk food out of grocery stores. There’s no good reason why anyone should be buying candy and soda.

For that matter, no one should be consuming alcohol or tobacco, substances responsible for death and destruction everywhere they go. They are already on the SNAP restriction list. We’d all be a lot better off we just banned them entirely. Of course, then there’s the question of what to do about red meat.

In its 2007 report on the implications of restricting the use of food stamp benefits, the USDA noted such inconvenient truths as the facts that there are no standards for what’s healthy and what’s not, it’s impossible to make distinctions among the 300,000 food products on the market, and that it’s probably not fair – or wise – to put supermarket checkout clerks in charge of enforcing state and federal prohibitions (even though they do so with tobacco and alcohol every day).

The USDA report also expressed serious reservations about “the slippery slope of characterizing foods.”

“Soft drinks,” noted the report, “have less total fat, saturated fat, and sodium per serving than some granola bars” and “some candy bars have a lower percentage of calories from fat and less saturated fat than a serving of cheddar cheese.”

OK, Mary, better add granola bars and cheddar cheese to the hit list. That won’t make LePage’s idol Scott Walker very happy, but then Wisconsin has sought to prohibit the use of SNAP benefits to purchase lobster.

Watch out for that slippery slope, governor.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Queenie42

    I’m not arguing with you, Mr. Beem, but what ‘s to stop anyone from buying the ingredients and making their own junk food? I ask this as one who has just sat down from a cookie making afternoon – maple cookies with maple glaze. Enough to send anyone into a diabetic coma for sure!
    People still cook, don’t they?

    • EABeem


  • Jay Singh

    This column has to be mostly satire.

    • EABeem

      Bite your tongue (in cheek).

  • Chew H Bird

    So instead of banning certain items, why not provide a discount percentage (for example) any Maine grown organic products? The price of better quality (healthy) food items is often substantially higher than mass produced products? If the goal is to actually reduce obesity and food related illness, instead of feel good legislation (like most “bans”), why not encourage generally accepted healthier eating habits and at the same time provide encouragement to local food producers by helping create demand for their products?

    • EABeem

      I do hope you realize I was being facetious, exaggerating to emphasize a point. That said, yes, we should provide incentives for people to buy local because the cost of local organic foods is too high for most people.

      • Chew H Bird

        My thoughts are simple and based upon the premise that humans, like other animals, often respond better to positive reinforcement rather than negative. Teaching a bird to mimic involves positive reinforcement. Training dogs and cats involves positive reinforcement (often using food as the reinforcement mechanism).

        I have no formal training in behavioral sciences, but if the goal is to actually provide a long term solution to an unfortunate problem I wager the concept of encouraging better nutrition through providing economic and physical benefit to purchasing healthy items might have better results than simply banning poor choices. If the “poor choices” have an economic downside (in addition bad nutrition), I bet more people will adopt better eating habits.

      • Christopher White

        Many (if not most) Farmers’ Markets in Maine use a program that doubles the value of SNAP & TANF EBT card purchases, effectively providing that incentive. Incentives are FAR better than bans.

        • Lucy Ball

          While I pay full price?

          • Chew H Bird

            We all pay, whether full price or not, and the costs of obesity related illness are skyrocketing. If we can lower the costs associated with this type of health issue the “full price” people pay will likely be less than increased costs (shared by all) for medical treatment.

    • Ted Markow

      It’s a sane suggestion, and I agree. However, there is a tragic catch: Fewer people know how to cook food from scratch. Oh, they can unwrap and microwave and heat “food,” but preparing fresh produce and meals from scratch seems to be a dying art. Along with the discount for organic food, there should be vouchers for free cooking lessons. Food bank and church kitchens would be a logical choice.

      I guess it’s more social commentary than anything else.

      • Queenie42

        We used to have Home Economics in high school. I think this might teach cooking skills and a whole lot more.

  • Bowdoin81

    “Soft drinks,” noted the report, “have less total fat, saturated fat,
    and sodium per serving than some granola bars” and “some candy bars have
    a lower percentage of calories from fat and less saturated fat than a
    serving of cheddar cheese.”

    And there’s the problem the experts have wrought on the American public.
    Total fat and saturated fat in the diet are NOT what have made so many Americans fat.
    It’s the bread, macaroni, muffins, pancakes, crackers, and so forth that we have been encouraged to eat in five-a-day quantities.
    Eat the cheese.
    Skip the granola bar.

  • danmaine

    We should go back to providing the poor with basic foods. A block of cheese, a bag of potatoes or rice etc… Instead of providing free lunch and breakfast families should feed their kids and make their lunches, just like we did while growing up.

    Food should be distributed through food pantry services, food banks and even home delivery by volunteers or the unemployed. The state could purchase shares from local farms for the other local foods in season for healthier vegetables.

    When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s a trip out to eat was a treat, McDonalds was a 4-5 times a year treat during some sort of a road trip, not a basic food staple. Soda was also a very rare treat. Low income, drink water, make your own coffee with a cheap drip machine. You can drink coffee for 6 months for $50!

    • HungryForChange

      While I agree with the sentiment here to some degree, I would love to see a rise and return of the home cooked meal as more standard, there are a couple of points I feel really need to be addressed.

      Most families in the 60’s and 70’s had only one parent working, and one being a stay-at-home parent. It’s a lot easier to keep up with housework and be able to cook nutritious meals that way. These days most families have 2 working parents, as its the only way to get by.

      Many people are too proud to take charity from places like food pantries and food banks, so I don’t think that would be a total solution. I do agree something should be done to make healthy food the more inexpensive option, and make processed foods harder to afford in general.

      You mention McDonalds, and I’m no defender of their quality. I recently read that, at least for a while, their “McDouble” sandwich was one of the most efficient bits of food you could buy in the USA for a long time, in terms of bang for your buck. I’m not quite sure what the criteria was for that, but that’s why you see McDonalds and other similar places becoming so popular. It’s quick, easy, and cheap, especially for households where the parents are each holding down 1 or more jobs.

      I think getting back to good home care and home cooked meals is an excellent goal, but it would need a lot of economic reform to make that the norm again.

    • Christopher White

      If you’re looking for a cause for this, look no further than the so-called Reagan Revolution followed closely by the Gingrich Revolution. The ‘free market’, ‘trickle-down economics’ gang have pushed the interests of the super wealthy and corporations to the detriment of nearly all of the rest of us. More and more of us are struggling to simply hang on economically at the same time the sources for sustenance are increasingly in the hands of enormous corporations, all of whom push us to be Consumers rather than Citizens. Time for change to be sure. Having Big Brother deciding what anyone in need gets to put in their grocery cart is not, however, a step in the right direction.

  • peterplus

    Mr. Beem. It will be the women in America who once stopped drunks from driving who will sweep away the guns in America and with them that sorry collection of terrified white men known as the republican party led by Mitch McConnell a banquet fed cadaver on the government dole most of his life — that has opposed all meaningful social change from medicare to social security to the civil rights act, to women’s rights and the rights of gays to live with a measure of dignity and the right of my children to have affordable health care. Republicans lost all of those battles and they will lose this battle to allow every moron to obtain a gun. You will see this in your lifetime, Mr. Beem.

    • Lucy Ball

      Drunks are still driving, the Dems not the Reps fought against civil rights, social security was raided by both parties, your health cost will go down $2,500.00 a year and if you like your plan and your doctor you can keep them (NOT), I think if you wandered out of your bubble you will find more women are arming themselves than ever before.