Obesity is reaching epidemic levels in the United States, especially among poorer populations. Children living in poverty are 1.7 times as obese as their peers, and there’s an inverse relationship between wages and body mass index (BMI), which is a measurement of a healthy weight. Basically, the poorer you are, the fatter you are. How is this possible? This defies logic. When one thinks “poor,” they usually think of food insecurity and hunger, not obesity.

For instance, here’s a picture of children who live in a slum in India:

They’re among the world’s poorest. They live in tents on the streets without plumbing, electricity, or any modern comfort that Americans are used to. Their situation is tragic and sad.

This picture is the fourth result on Google Images result when the term “Poor Americans” is entered:DESCRIPTION

This is a picture of Angelica Hernandez and Gloria Nunez, who live in Ohio in a subsidized housing complex. They are both unemployed and live off of SNAP (food stamps) and other government benefits. Nunez and Hernandez were profiled in an NPR article about the rough economy in 2008.

Notice any major differences in the two pictures? I’ll tell you one: the poor Americans probably weigh as much as all of those Indian children do combined. I seriously doubt there’s an obesity problem in the slums of Mumbai. Obesity used to be a sign of wealth—an obese person could actually afford the food required to, well, be obese.

What most people don’t realize is that with an EBT card with SNAP benefits, a person can buy approximately 99% of the food or beverage items in a grocery store. While SNAP cannot be spent on liquor, beer, and most hot prepared food items, (although some states allow EBT cards to be used at fast food restaurants) everything else is fair game and can be purchased using SNAP funds. The “everything else” category includes (among traditional nutritious items like vegetables, fruit, and bread): gum, candy bars, soda, energy drinks, prepared cakes from the bakery, lobsters, bacon wrapped filets, ice cream, donuts, cupcakes, etc.

Now, I have no problem with a person on EBT buying or consuming any of the above listed items. I do, however, have a problem with people using the money that was given to them under a “nutrition” program on items that are completely void of any nutritional value. American taxpayers should not have to subsidize the obesity of the lower class under the guise of a nutritional program meant to prevent starvation. If a person wants Cheetos or Mountain Dew badly enough, they can use their own money for it. SNAP is not designed or intended to cover the entire food budget for a person (hence the starting term of “supplemental”), and it should cover the basics and that’s it. Soda, gum, and candy bars are not “basics.”

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, there has been an emphasis on preventative care. What’s better preventative care than making sure that the poorest Americans aren’t eating food that’s bad for them? Plenty of people on SNAP are also utilizing some form of Medicaid program—wouldn’t it save the state money in the long run if nutritionally unsound items were banned from a program designed to increase nutrition?

The governor of my home state, Maine, has recently proposed legislation that would eliminate soda as an eligible item for SNAP. This makes sense—soda is the largest source of calories in the American diet, Maine public schools have already banned soda from being sold in cafeterias, and there is tons of evidence linking soda with obesity. Obesity is associated with many other health issues, including diabetes and heart disease. It seems like a no-brainer to remove soda from the list of items that can be purchased with SNAP.

However, this proposal has been controversial and is unlikely to pass due to federal rules regarding items that can be disallowed from SNAP purchases. In order to remove products from SNAP, a waiver must be obtained from the federal government, and states have been rejected in the past attempting to ban soda and other nutritionally void items. The list of allowed products is only growing, not shrinking, and the same is true with the waistlines of the poor.

Another argument against the proposal is that it’s not “fair” to limit what can and cannot be bought with an EBT card. This isn’t true because a person is still free to spend his or her money on whatever food they want. SNAP funds are not “their” funds—it’s a gift from taxpaying citizens. Personally, I’d be pretty upset if I discovered that the money I gave to someone to spend on a healthy dinner was spent on a coke and a candy bar.

I want all Americans to be healthy. Our obesity rates are shocking and disturbing. A good step forward would be ensuring that the only items that can be bought with SNAP truly fulfill the mission of the program—ensuring nutrition.

Christine Rousselle | Providence College | @CRousselle