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Editorial

Food stamp food police?

Florida Sen. Ronda Storms' bill to limit what recipients can buy is a bad idea and a demeaning approach.

January 31, 2012
  • Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms has sponsored legislation to stop people from buying junk food with food stamps.
Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms has sponsored legislation to stop people… (Joe Raedle/Getty Images )

To many liberals, the thing that distinguishes them from conservatives is that those on the right lack empathy. It's not a particularly fair criticism of an ideology more informed by a love of individualism and distrust of collective solutions to social problems than a failure to understand the plight of the unfortunate, but in the case of Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms, it seems to apply.

Storms is pushing a bill that would prohibit recipients of food stamps from using them to buy soda, candy or snacks that she considers unhealthful. When a fellow Republican lawmaker at a Senate hearing on the bill Wednesday pointed out that this would prevent poor parents from buying their children a birthday cake or cupcake, Storms uttered the closest modern equivalent to Marie Antoinette's infamous remark about cake that we've ever heard: "They can have cake," she replied. "You can buy flour, eggs and sugar, and that makes a cake. I make my kids their own cakes."

If this seems reasonable to you, there is a very good chance that you're not a single mom on welfare. Frequently, such parents lack the resources, ability or time to practice home baking.

If Florida were the only place considering such restrictions, we might dismiss it as a Sunshine State anomaly, but legislation seeking to restrict the kind of fare that can be purchased with food stamps has been introduced in about half a dozen other states, including California (though last year's bill here stalled). There are two key motivations behind this drive: a well-meaning effort to fight obesity among the poor, and a mean-spirited attempt to make them eat their spinach because Uncle Sam doesn't want to spring for candy bars. Either way, it's a misguided approach.

The list in Storms' bill is so long — foods containing trans fats, sweetened beverages, "sweets" from jello to doughnuts, and "salty snacks" — that it seems to include most items not found in the produce or meat aisles. The notion that poor people have any more time to cook from scratch than other Americans who rely on prepared supermarket "junk" food is clearly absurd, and infantilizing them by restricting their choices in this way is demeaning. Meanwhile, even narrower attempts at limiting the grocery list, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2010 proposal to forbid food stamp purchases of sugary soft drinks, fail the smell test. Some fruit juices that would have been allowed under Bloomberg's plan are as nutritionally empty as colas, and advice from health experts about what Americans should be eating is subject to frequent shifts.

The best way to prevent people from making bad food choices is to give them proper nutritional information. But for the government to reach into their supermarket carts is downright — dare we say it? — socialistic.

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