Bolton: Why put weight of obesity in SC just on food stamp recipients?

Associate EditorMay 22, 2013 

— NOT EVERYONE who receives food stamps in South Carolina is overweight.

As a matter of fact, most overweight people in our state aren’t in the food stamp program.

You couldn’t tell that by the way people are jumping on the bandwagon as Gov. Nikki Haley, Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton and others mount a crusade to stop every soul who receives food stamps (in the form of an EBT card, of course) from using them to purchase sodas, chips and other fattening foods.

Gov. Haley and others argue that government shouldn’t allow food stamps to be used to buy unhealthy food. They’re hoping the U.S. Department of Agriculture will grant South Carolina a waiver that allows it to place restrictions on what people can buy using the public assistance.

There’s no doubt that government has the right to — and in most instances should — dictate what is bought with taxpayer-provided dollars. But I’m struggling in this instance because this crusade is directed toward all poor people, not all overweight people or the fat-inducing products.

Look, I get it. Obesity is a big issue. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s population is either overweight or obese, which contributes to the state’s high rates of diabetes, heart disease and stroke and adds $1.2 billion or so to the state’s annual medical costs. Something must be done.

But why make some of the poorest among us the poster children for obesity when most South Carolinians are carrying around excess and unhealthy pounds they need to shed?

Is it because it’s easy — and lazy and takes no courage — to target those who are poor and need a helping hand rather than come up with a comprehensive effort aimed at low-, middle- and upper-income bellies?

Consider this: About 18 percent of South Carolina’s population, or 878,000 people, participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp assistance. About 30 percent of South Carolinians are overweight and another 30 percent are obese; that would mean that if food stamp recipients are like the general population, 527,000 food stamp recipients are overweight or obese. That’s a lot of people, and we do need to address their weight and health issues.

At the same time, 351,000 people receiving food stamps wouldn’t rate as having a weight problem.

Now take a look at the 82 percent, or 3.8 million, South Carolinians not receiving food stamps: 2.28 million — more than four times the number of folks receiving the assistance — are overweight or obese.

So why single out just those on food stamps? I don’t think it’s enough of a justification to argue that the government shouldn’t aid people in practicing an unhealthy lifestyle that causes chronic problems and increases care costs.

If indeed that’s the way we feel, then why did our Legislature remove the sales tax on sodas and chips, making them cheaper and easier to purchase? Why aren’t our governor and others calling for the 6 percent tax to be reinstated if the goal is to slow the proliferation of junk food? We could dedicate the proceeds from the tax to fighting obesity.

While some point out that studies have shown that Americans in the food stamp program are more overweight than those who are not, no one knows for sure. There is a dearth of information about food stamp users and the purchases they make. And what little there is isn’t all weighted against those who receive assistance. A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that recipients consumed 41 percent of their calories in solid fats, alcoholic beverages and added sugars while higher-income non-participants consumed 38 percent. That’s hardly a wide gap.

A 1999 study of food stamp purchases found only 8.4 percent were made in the less-desirable categories, while 54.5 percent were made on meats, fruits and vegetables.

We can’t overcome obesity in South Carolina by simply blaming it on the poor. Whatever we do, we should treat everyone’s challenge with weight the same.

Folks on food stamps are already dealing with a number of challenges, including stigma. Why pile on by placing the face of the poor on obesity?

We must not further stigmatize this necessary program by making it seem that no one aided by it knows anything about taking responsibility for themselves and their own health and making good food choices. Many people on food stamps are doing just that.

If we’re going to use the leverage of government to attack obesity, then do it across the board.

But, let’s be real. Taking away people’s ability to buy fatty foods with food stamps or making it more costly for everyone in general to purchase such products won’t automatically translate into them eating better or being healthier. Those who want fatty foods are still going to get them, one way or another.

Which suggests that we need another way — or ways — to address this serious problem. To her credit, Ms. Templeton apparently knows that; she’s proposed devoting more anti-obesity resources toward battling the problem in rural counties with the highest rates of obesity.

We need to educate people about what they’re doing to their bodies and help them learn to make better choices about what they eat if we want them to make better decisions about what they purchase.

Some have suggested that instead of telling people what they can’t buy, the better choice would be to use an incentives-based method such as allowing food stamp purchases at farmers markets to count double.

But we must remember: This isn’t just about poor people. If indeed the intent is to unshackle South Carolina from the grip of obesity, a paternalistic approach that singles out food stamp recipients isn’t going to do it.

We need a comprehensive strategy that recognizes that the larger population’s obesity problem is just as acute and costly — and potentially deadly.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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