Out to Pasture: Farm Programs, Food Stamps and Twinkies

14:52PM Apr 30, 2010


Steve Cornett

It's obvious that President Obama's USDA is not comfortable with the way agriculture works today. The theme of this year's Outlook Forum was basically, What can USDA do to make small-scale food production more competitive with mainstream agriculture?

But the history of progress in U.S. agriculture is one of connecting far-flung producers with consumers concentrated in urban areas.

This is the starting point for Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation and the movie, Food, Inc., based on the book. Or read anything Michael Pollan has written in the last few years. Their underlying theme is that modern agriculture drives small producers out of business and forces consumers onto a junk-food diet based on cheap carbohydrates, thus creating the "obesity crisis."

Poor people in the U.S. are indeed fatter than nonpoor people.

Food, Inc., shows a kid asking to buy a piece of fruit and his older sister telling him they can't afford it. Poor kids, forced to eat Happy Meals when all they really want is some broccoli.

Oh, the trauma. Is education the way? Now USDA wants to educate poor people to eat better. The agency has a point. Studies show that food stamp recipients make unhealthier choices than other people. They drink less milk, consume fewer fruits and vegetables and drink more regular—as opposed to diet—sodas.

My question is, how is food education going to reach these people? Isn't there is a better, more direct way? It seems so to me. Here is an excerpt from a brochure aimed at food stamp recipients in Massachusetts, headed "What can I buy with SNAP food stamps?"

You can buy any food item except food that is hot when you buy it, or food that is sold to be eaten in the store like restaurant food. Eligible food items include:

  • any food products or ingredients used to prepare meals at home
  • cold prepared sandwiches, salads, and other deli items
  • ethnic and health foods
  • snack foods, candy, soda, and ice

You cannot buy non-food items like liquor, cigarettes, vitamins or medicines, pet foods, soap, cosmetics, laundry products, paper goods, or other household products.

Let's review. No. 1: Poor people eat too much junk. No. 2: They buy the junk with food stamps.

As I recall, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. What part of the line between these two points are we missing?

The New York Times is full of editorials suggesting that government farm programs are responsible for the country's obesity epidemic. States are imposing Twinkie taxes while the USDA is planning educational programs to talk food stamp recipients out of choosing the very foods our government is buying for them.

Why are snack foods, candy and soda on the list of approved purchases if studies say they are the very reason poor kids are fat?

Children tend to eat like their parents taught them to eat. These kids are taught by their parents to eat poorly, and USDA is paying for it. What sort of circuitous reasoning makes you fret about the role of corporations and corn subsidies in poor people's obesity when we're paying direct subsidies on snack foods, candy and soda?

Why would we want to institute programs designed to raise the cost of everybody's food just to be sure poor people—the ones eating on food stamps—can't afford what they prefer?

Steve Cornett, Editor Emeritus, writes from Canyon, Texas, [email protected]