Restrictions on food assistance?WASHINGTON — In a signal that the Obama administration is unlikely to support proposals to fight obesity by restricting the foods that food stamp beneficiaries can buy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Nov. 17 that instituting such rules “could create nightmares” in grocery store checkout lines.
By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek
WASHINGTON — In a signal that the Obama administration is unlikely to support proposals to fight obesity by restricting the foods that food stamp beneficiaries can buy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Nov. 17 that instituting such rules “could create nightmares” in grocery store checkout lines.
In response to a question after a speech on the child nutrition bill to the Aspen Health Stewardship Project, Vilsack said restricting what food stamp program participants can buy is “complicated.” The administration, he said, sees nutrition education and incentives for the purchase of certain foods as an alternative to the restrictions.
Under current law, food stamps, which now are formally known as supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP benefits, can be used to buy all food items except hot, prepared foods. Alcohol and tobacco also are prohibited.
Limits on purchases
But with the national concern about obesity, some political leaders have proposed that restrictions be placed on the foods that SNAP beneficiaries can buy. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has asked USDA to authorize an experiment that would stop New York food stamp beneficiaries from buying certain foods, but that request still is being reviewed, Vilsack said.
Outgoing House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., also has said he thinks the food stamp program should be changed so beneficiaries cannot buy foods with “empty calories.” Anti-hunger activists have said low-income people should have the same freedom of choice in buying foods as middle class Americans. Any restrictions on food stamp purchases could have major ramifications throughout agricultural sectors.
Vilsack noted that grocery stores sell more than 300,000 items and that it would be difficult for USDA to decide what items to allow and what not to allow on a nutritional basis. Vilsack said that, for example, shredded wheat that is labeled as reduced in sugar might look like a good item from a nutritional standpoint, but that a close examination of the label would show that the food company increased sodium when it reduced sugar.
“Which is it — sodium or sugar?” Vilsack said.
He also said that if USDA started picking and choosing between foods that can be purchased with food stamps, the situation could create complications at grocery stores if a mother “with two children who are fussing” came into the line and then was told that she could not buy certain items with her food stamps. Vilsack said he wondered whether the clerk would insist that the items not be included or would let them go through to keep the line moving. And, he asked, if USDA were to institute such rules, would they be enforced by putting an 18-year old clerk in jail, by shutting down the store or fining the owner?
Pushing nutritious foods
USDA already is trying to encourage food stamp beneficiaries to buy more nutritious food through a Massachusetts experiment in which purchasers of fruits and vegetables get a 20 percent discount on those items. Vilsack also said that at a school in Denver, he recently was served a brownie that contained black beans, which gave it higher protein content. Vilsack said that improving the foods served in schools and distributing some of those recipes to food stamp beneficiaries could help fight obesity.
Vilsack said he is reluctant to take any step that would embarrass food stamp beneficiaries.
“We have been trying to reduce the stigma surrounding SNAP,” he said, adding that only 10 percent of the beneficiaries receive cash welfare payments.
Vilsack also told the conference that there is a “misunderstanding” about the role of farm subsidies in USDA’s budget. Only $9 billion to $10 billion of USDA’s $150 billion budget goes to farm subsidies, he said. Reacting to a statement that subsidies for corn are encouraging obesity, Vilsack said that corn production also makes the United States more energy secure and reduces biohazards from fuels. He said farm subsidies have created a system in which the cost of food for Americans is cheaper than in most developed and developing countries.