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.