The Trump administration is pushing radical changes in the food stamp program as part of the farm bill. Reform efforts may be derailed by activists who vastly exaggerate hunger and portray food handouts as the epitome of social justice. But federal food handouts have already done far too much damage to Americans' health.
Food stamps are now feeding 42 million people. Twitter activists created a #HandsOffSNAP hashtag to seek to block any efforts at reform. But, while politicians portray food stamps as a nutrition program (Congress changed the name to Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2008), they are actually a blank check to buy more calories.
Food stamps have long been a dietary disaster. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University's Department of Nutrition, observed, "We've analyzed what (food stamp) participants are eating and it's horrible food. It's a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes." A 2017 public health study found that food stamp recipients were twice as likely to be obese as eligible non-recipients. Similarly, a 2015 USDA report revealed that food stamp recipients are more likely to be obese than eligible non-recipients (40 percent vs. 32 percent).
Food stamps are a perpetual bailout for the junk food industry. A 2016 USDA report revealed that soft drinks are the most common commodity purchased in food stamp households. Together, "sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar" account for 20 percent of food stamp expenditures. Food stamp recipients consume twice as many of their daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages as do higher incomes groups (12 percent vs. 6 percent), according to a 2015 study in Preventive Medicine.
A federal program designed simply to boost calorie consumption makes no sense at a time when obesity is rampant. Forty-four percent of low-income women are obese; the rate is even higher for black (56 percent) and Hispanic (49 percent).
Food stamps are justified to prevent hunger but the federal government does not even attempt to collect data on how many Americans actually go hungry. The National Academy of Sciences urged USDA to create a hunger gauge in 2006 but the agency has done nothing on that score. Instead, USDA conducts annual surveys measuring a vaporous notion of "food security" — which can simply mean uncertainty about being able to afford groceries in the future or not being able to afford the organic food one prefers. Though USDA stresses that the survey is not a measure of hunger, its results (and those of similar surveys) are perennially twisted to maximize teeth-gnashing.
According to the Share Our Strength No Hungry Kids' campaign, "1 in 6 kids in the U.S. face hunger." According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, "one in five children go to bed and awaken hungry." A sparsely-responded food security survey released last month by Temple University sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rah implied that 36 percent of college students were suffering from hunger (the report is titled "Still Hungry and Homeless in College"). The tactic helped spur ludicrous headlines claiming her report showed "starvation" among students.
After equating food insecurity with hunger, handout advocates acknowledge that food insecurity is connected to weight gain. Throughout most of human history, hungry people were portrayed as gaunt, if not emaciated. But nowadays, a profusion of XXL shirt sizes is apparently proof that more free food is needed more than ever before. Blaming obesity on hunger or food insecurity is a way for these advocates to absolve millions of overweight people for every Big Gulp Pepsi they ever drank.
A far more accurate gauge of Americans' food deprivation is available from international data. The United Nations estimated last year that fewer than 2.5 percent of Americans are undernourished and that 1.4 percent suffered from severe food insecurity. This report tracks with a 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association analysis that noted that "seven times as many (low-income) children are obese as are underweight."
The Trump administration proposes replacing much of the food stamp program with boxes of government-issued food. Though a similar program helped protect people against severe hunger prior to the creation of food stamps, switching to food distribution at this point would likely be confusing, if not counterproductive.
It would be far more effective to reform food stamps based on the Womens Infant Children program, which provides coupons only for specific relatively healthy foods. A 2014 Stanford University studyconcluded that prohibiting the use of food stamps for sugary drinks would prevent 141,000 kids from becoming fat and save a quarter million adults from Type 2 diabetes. Restricting food stamp purchases for junk food (a popular bipartisan reform with the nation's governors and mayors) would have far greater health benefits.
The latest controversies around food stamps are a reminder that hysteria is a poor substitute for hard facts. There is no constitutional right to free junk food. America can aid the truly hungry without creating an illusory safety net that does more to spur obesity than to improve diets.
James Bovard is the author of "Public Policy Hooligan" (Kindle version 2012), "Attention Deficit Democracy" (St. Martin's/Palgrave, 2006), and eight other books. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and many other publications.