Are Your Tax Dollars Subsidizing Obesity?

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

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10 Responses

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  1. Catherine
    Feb 16, 2013 - 01:28 AM

    See your problem is: you are not a major corp such as Pepsi or Nabisco or Hostess. See, you just have a hair up your butt because you don’t profit from sales generated by food stamp purchases. Ok yes, so the health care industry profits..I bet you are not the health care industry are you? You don’t profit from disease and sickness? see…really now your bias is obvious.

  2. Ceecee
    Jan 21, 2013 - 06:39 PM

    Because junk food is CHEAP that’s why. Most people who live in low income neighborhoods and survive on food stamps cannot afford the meat, whole grains, fruits and vegetables that you grew-up eating. When was the last time you lived in the inner city and fed your family on food stamps? No? I thought not. This excellent article will open your young eyes…
    Rather than looking down your nose at “poor people” why don’t you climb down out of your ivory tower and help them instead?

    • Ceecee
      Jan 21, 2013 - 07:04 PM

      b.t.w. Junk food IS making its way into places like rural India and South America. The result is children who have no access to dental care with acute devastating tooth decay in places where it has never been seen before. Why? Because junk food is CHEAP!! This video will shock you. Hopefully it will change your mind and make you want to help.


  3. *enchante*
    Jan 15, 2013 - 09:53 AM

    Regarding soda in schools: theyve ALWAYS had soda in middle AND High Schools and kids were NEVER this obese. I think it could be they sweeten with CORN SYRUP which isnt naturally sweet unless they CHEMICALLY SWEETEN it. Or, families are soooo broken today even the middle class, that no one sits at the dinner table for a meal anymore and talk..a good way to start, is DAD taking away the devices and teach his kids to look someone in the eye while talking, etc…So, if a youngster wants a soda at school, its ok since they eat better at home. Regarding the poor tho: many poor girls equate sex with love: and now we have 3 generations of this. At times fiscal conservatives bother me BECAUSE you CANT be fiscally conservative WITHOUT BEING MORALLY CONSERVATIVE. Sure you could put the cart before the horse, but the horse cant push it well. Put the HORSE before the cart so he can PULL IT…

  4. *enchante*
    Jan 15, 2013 - 09:38 AM

    Its funny: i wonder if those shows like Dr. OZ and the Doctors show people noshing UP CLOSE as an incentive to Stop them from eating–pretty women looking like pigs with their snouts open. As far as food stamps being used for soda and other junk, im GLAD they did that. Theu could drink WATER instead of soda. At Bed bath & Beyond, they sell those BRITA water bottles for 10 dollars and the filters for i believe 7. Since my hubby and I bought one, we RARELY drink soda..the bottles take out the yucky taste from the tap water which makes it taste closer to spring water.

  5. Christopher Rushlau
    Jan 11, 2013 - 06:55 PM

    Obesity strikes me as a form of slow-motion suicide. If that is the proper moral context, two implications are there. One is that you cannot talk someone out of suicide. Look at how impervious Israel is to advice on expanding its idea of democracy so as to save it.
    The other is, to quote the title of a Leslie Chateris (creator of “The Saint” character) story and TV episode, there is no such thing as “The Happy Suicide” (it turned out to be a case of murder, of course). People who are happy do not commit suicide, says the Saint at the end of the story.
    Where is our duty to suicidal people? Is it to medicate likely candidates so as to paralyze them? This is our standard response to human difficulty–encase it in concrete. Look at how we talk about Israel. [Silence.] No, our duty is to have a heart, see what you see, say what needs to be said to the person you see, to go out on a limb and risk your reputation among the abusers-in-chief by caring about the victims.

  6. Trilby
    Jan 11, 2013 - 04:21 PM

    I think you also forgot entirely a very important way we are subsidizing obesity- which is massive corn and sugar subsidies. It is no wonder corn has been said to be in 1 in every 4 products found in the grocery store (often because of corn syrup)- it is so cheap to produce thanks to subsidies!

    But I think you’ve hit on some common ground in the SNAP program. Liberals want effective programs to help the poor, and conservatives don’t want to waste money. The two sides need to come together to defeat the enormous “junk food” lobby to make sure SNAP can’t be sent on terrible food. It would also help to expand creative programs, like ones in CA which encourage the use of SNAP at farmer’s markets (which too often aren’t able to accept SNAP).

    A final way we are subsidizing junk food is our socialized medicine (which existed pre-Obamacare, since we had VA care, medicaid, medicare, and Reagan signed the law requiring ER care regardless of ability to pay). With or without Obamacare, taxpayers are footing the bill for unhealthy lifestyles. People might like to think their diets (or drinking/smoking) only affect them, but they ultimately burden public health systems. Just out of economic considerations we should be taxing junk food that is reasonably responsible for causing health problems.

  7. Bill
    Jan 11, 2013 - 04:17 PM

    So the government can tell people what to eat when it is convenient for you? I don’t see anyone telling you that you should eat healthier, so here we go: cut out the cheetos!

    • Chelle
      Jan 18, 2013 - 01:57 AM

      Pretty much.

      Complain about fat people, then turn around and complain about Michelle Obama’s Lets Move Program.

      Its a constant no win situation.



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