Nikki Haley tries to stamp out obesity 

SNAP Judgment

Over the last few months, I have singled out Gov. Nikki Haley for more than her fair share of scrutiny — or, as conservatives call it, "abuse." Certainly, the governor has quite a collection of political mishaps, dirty secrets, and terrible policy ideas floating around, but in the interest of fairness, she is doing something right. At least she's trying to do something good, even if she is once again fighting her favorite bugaboo, the federal government. Only this time it isn't just rhetoric and hyperbole.

Recently, Haley unexpectedly began talking about enacting restrictions on the types of food that South Carolinian recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can buy. The governor, correctly, ties poor nutrition to poor health and notes that unhealthy people are a costly drain on resources, public and private. How she has grasped this without realizing the need to expand Medicaid in the state is a question for her eventual biographers or maybe a future Public Policy Limited column.

At any rate, Haley seems ready to face off against those who oppose any restrictions on SNAP purchases. Namely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and certain sectors of the "liberal" press and political system.

Think Progress ran a piece last month with the strange headline, "Why Nikki Haley's Push to Limit Food Stamps is the Wrong Way to Fight Obesity." It is strange because at no point in the piece does Think Progress writer Sy Mukherjee ever really get around to why Haley is wrong. He only mentions the standard talking points against enacting restrictions on food stamp purchases. These talking points are taken from a 2007 USDA paper outlining its opposition to the restrictions.

The USDA notes that studies linking poor nutrition to recipients of SNAP benefits are "inconclusive," noting that while food stamp recipients purchase more sugar-based drinks, they tend to stay away from sweet or salty snack foods. The paper also makes the amusing claim that there are no clear standards for what healthy food is and says that requiring stores to alter their point of sale systems based on new restrictions would constitute an unfair burden on businesses.

If you think those points sound remarkably pro-business, remember that the paper came out in 2007 during the administration of George W. Bush when Mike Johanns was Secretary of Agriculture. After leaving the department, Johann successfully ran for one of Nebraska's seats in the U.S. Senate. His second largest corporate donor was ConAgra Foods, makers of such nutritious fare as Crunch 'n Munch, Big Mama Pickled Sausage, and Fiddle Faddle. Sure, ConAgra also owns the Alexia brand of "all-natural" delicacies such as organic fries and hashbrowns, but those are not exactly cheap compared to non-organic fare.

Which brings up another point that's often mentioned whenever someone wants to place restrictions on food stamp purchases: SNAP benefits are supposed to be supplemental; they are not meant to be a family's entire food budget. However, for many families they are, and if they're not the sole source of grocery money, they're certainly the primary one.

So, while the USDA may not be able to figure out that Coca-Cola is worse for you than water or that supermarkets routinely deal with tens of thousands of items floating around their databases, the only serious problem with restricting purchases to SNAP recipients is that healthy food is more expensive. If anyone at the USDA cares to explain how there is "no difference" between certain foods when it comes to health, yet there is a difference in price, please come forward. Of course, talking about that would be well outside the boundaries of polite political discourse in this country, as it is tied directly to our nation's system of profiting from the production of food. Instead we get insulting challenges from various politicos for anyone, like Gov. Haley, who is attempting some type of public policy change — such as the one issued by state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who challenged Haley and her family to live off a SNAP budget eating only healthy food.

Yes, Sellers makes some salient points in his statement — saying, "We don't have Whole Foods in rural South Carolina, nor does the farmer's market accept food stamps — but it's hard to ignore the political opportunism of his actions. It's endemic of our current partisan-driven political system that Sellers issued a "challenge" to Haley instead of asking her and his fellow members of the General Assembly to come together and start a dialogue that would result in solving this problem.

That dialogue needs to address not just food, but access to healthy food for all South Carolinians. To do that, we must address how our food is sourced and why we treat food like a commodity. If the health of the citizens of the state is that important to Gov. Haley and Rep. Sellers, this is a discussion they must take on.


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