In principle, policies should support or improve social welfare, or help society meet a social goal. That statement might suggest I am naive, since the world doesn’t work that way. However, I think holding our policymakers to a high standard is essential.
In my view, the public health goals many of us implicitly have in mind when we discuss making changes to the food system are (1) increasing food access and (2) improving human health (I am overlooking other goals at this moment). And in many ways, these views are aligned with mainstream thinkers; the divergence emerges when discussions about how to achieve both.
As a society, we can’t afford to continue ignoring the impact the food we eat has on our health. The same conclusion is reached from multiple directions. One argument falls into the fiscal responsibility camp; over time, the federal budget will be unreasonably strained by meeting the health care needs of an aging population that consumed food of low quality for a lifetime. A quality of life argument exists as well; we feel better and perform at a higher level if our bodies are supported by good quality food. Both community and family life can be supported by the act of shopping for food, preparing meals, and dining together; in a society that is fast-paced and defined by internet connections and quickly prepared/consumed food, the benefits of human interaction are often overlooked. After all, like horses, we are herd animals by design.
But how do our federal nutrition policies support human health? In one sense, they seem effective: by transferring income, people are able to purchase a greater quantity of food, thus expanding financial access to food. For certain income groups, that is clearly essential.
But what can a person buy with their benefits? Here is an edited list, which is based on information contained in USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service SNAP eligibility list, which can be found here: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailers/eligible.htm.
I will point to the following items, and indicate whether they help support our goals of increasing human health:
- soft drinks, candy, ice cream, energy drinks with nutritional labels (but not supplement labels) – not helpful in public health context
- seeds – good for raising food at home; helpful in public health context
- hot meals or food eaten in store can not be purchased using federal benefits – I think this means you can buy a bag of chips and soda, but not a sandwich?
- Not included on that list is the fact that SNAP benefits can not be used to buy organic milk
This short list points out inconsistencies in the way SNAP benefits can be used, and leads us to question whether they are indeed supporting the goal of increased human health rather than just providing greater financial access to food. I completely support freedom of choice and see no reason to impinge on the right to choose food, but I don’t see why candy is allowed but organic milk is not. My inner cynic immediately recognizes that the companies producing the packaged low quality food have more bargaining strength than the organic milk processor does, but I am not sure this is the most important factor.
This is more food for thought…but let’s make it an apple and not a packaged apple pie.