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Food for Food’s Sake

Often times a writer will sit down to a blank screen, look at the clean space and wonder where to begin. Perhaps being a little less gracious and a little more honest, someone once said that a writer is someone who sits down to work and prays for the phone to ring. Putting the humor aside, there is a topic of conversation that I have avoided.  And now I need to come clean.  For too long, I’ve been fearful – for reasons I will later explain – to write about the food stamp program in the United States. Now for the sake of conversation, here’s the background and my thoughts on what we ought to do.

This historic food stamp program initiative costs billions and billions of dollars and for the most part – more than 70% – the recipients of this program are children, the elderly, and the infirm. To be clear on this, the amount allotted in food stamps per meal is $1.88 and is being reduced under current proposed legislation to $1.44, hardly an amount that any member of Congress has ever paid even to a coat check clerk.

As with any program of this size in a country of this size, there is a splinter minority not desperately poor or vulnerable but larcenous, and because of this some argue to abolish the aid. Doing this would be parallel to throwing everyone off unemployment because a small percentage never actually looked for or took a job. Half a solution is often half of the problem.

The central principals behind the food stamp funding are two:

1)    We don’t think we are a society that should allow people to starve.

2)    We believe that people who are fed have a chance to become productive citizens serving the nation that fed them.

Now, to the issue I have long avoided speaking on publicly. The problem is that while food stamps cannot be used for liquor or cigarettes, they can be used to purchase food that has almost no nutritional value.

A consequence of inadequate public information, and private interest media campaigns pushing nutritionally vacant diets, has lessened and weakened an understanding of the food’s inherent value. Added to this is the food industry’s reliance on mass processing to drive down cost and drive up profits. Along with an abeyance of personal responsibility, these factors have driven us to our poor purchasing and eating decisions.

Furthermore, by ignoring the utility of healthy eating, we, as a nation, are paying to throw away resources that could actually assist in the development of contributive citizens living better lives.

So, yes, let’s not abandon our basic civilized ethic of caring and certainly not let our fellow citizens starve. But, hand in hand with this helping hand, let us also require that food stamps can only be used on food that achieves nutritional standards and avoids obesity, diabetes, cardiac issues, and the cavalcade of social expenses that follow and draft on the abandonment of this responsibility.

Now, I know it will take the wisdom of Solomon to establish the food stamp redemption nutritional standards and many will shriek at the idea of another government agency. But our children, our old, our disabled, and our country are worth the effort. As Scripture reminds us, “We’re not expected to finish the work but neither are we excused from it.” Doing the right thing is not an obligation from which the greatest nation on earth has a right to shirk.

So to go back to how this blog began, for many years I was afraid of touting this proposal because I thought – as a child of the ‘60’s – that with billions of dollars at stake to the major food manufacturers who gladly sell food crap for food stamps, many would want me silenced, ignored, pushed to the margins of reasonable arguments, or dragged into an unmarked van. And I was scared.

Perhaps because I am a little older and my fears have changed course or perhaps because I am a little less inclined to put my fears in charge, I now forward this voice.

And herein possible consequences:

– Once this change became law, the food companies in very short order (once they stopped lobbying against it for all kinds of self–serving “we don’t want the government telling us what we can eat” arguments) will start making better food for people to buy. At the end of the day, big food is less concerned with losing an argument than losing money.

– The good news is not just for those on food stamps who will have better food.  This will also be good for the food we all eat. The major food suppliers aren’t going to do the right thing because they should, and the minority who care should be championed. But let us not be deluded, the majority are not here to make good food. They are here to make money – hello Cocoa Puffs. And when there is money to be made by making good food, better food will be sold and served to all the people in this country.

Our ethical and socially supportive instincts with the food stamp program are well based. The next step is to ensure healthy eating options for this program. “The difficult we do immediately,” said David Ben Gurion, “the impossible takes a little longer.” For us to do any less is a waste of lives and a waste of money. Certainly, this is a sane and moral movement, behind which we can all unite. For social, health, and economic reasons, we cannot afford anything less. And after you read this, if I suddenly disappear for any reason, at least I got this off my chest and into the discussion.

Noah benShea
The Justice Project
Executive Director

 

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