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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Senator Ritchie proposes limiting SNAP

State Senator Patty Ritchie (R) recently bragged on her Facebook page, "I just introduced legislation to prevent the use of food stamps, or EBT benefits, to buy junk food, like soda and candy, or luxury items, like steak and lobster. My bill will help low-income families stretch their food budgets, improve nutrition and stop abuses."
While her post generated over 800 comments, with many disagreeing with her approach, it seemed strange that an elected official would not know that the program is not called food stamps, nor is it called EBT.  The program that helps low-income families and seniors purchase food is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP for short.  The SNAP benefits do come on a card called an Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT card.  However, other benefits are also delivered via an EBT card, so it is not fair to assume that because someone has an EBT card that they are making use of SNAP benefits.

Semantics aside, it's certainly easy to jump on the "no steak and lobster" bandwagon.  But the real question this proposal raises is, who will be the "food police?"  If we prohibit steak, does that mean someone can't buy a chuck steak when it's on sale cheaper than hamburger?  In my work running a large food bank in Connecticut, I once had a woman tell me we should not give poor people bread because it causes diabetes!  Do we want to put her in charge of deciding who can eat what?  Senator Ritchie listed granola bars as a healthy choice, but would ban candy bars.  Today, the typical granola bar in the store is nothing but a candy bar in disguise.    Why would one be allowed and not the other?  Even if we can find a way to make the list of what's allowed and not allowed, how does a grocery store, which typically has more than 40,000 separate items in stock, even keep track?
All the research tells us that SNAP recipients get about the same nutrition, or even slightly better than the typical American.  Of course, the typical American's diet may not be all that great, but how do we improve it?  Is it by limiting choices or making it easier to make better choices?  A proven method to get SNAP households consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables is by providing incentives, like the State of New York's Fresh Connect program which provides an additional $2 worth of produce at area farmers markets for every $5 in SNAP benefits used at the market.  This program is truly win-win, not only helping low-income families have better nutrition, but also supporting our local farmers.