poverty and responsibility

I have an ongoing discussion with a friend about the ethics of our food stamp system.   We discussed this article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/justin-stoneman/post_868_b_720398.html)  about the corporate politics that govern our food systems: in particular, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and its sponsors (Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, PepsiCo, to name a few).  It would appear that these powerful people are working together to feed their wallets by keeping America unhealthy.  If you are limited to $30 in food stamps per week, will you not choose the most affordable options to feed your family?  So then is the answer to begin mandating what foods should be “allowed” with food stamps (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/20/nyregion/ban-on-using-food-stamps-to-buy-soda-rejected-by-usda.html?ref=nutrition)?

I’m interested in the point of view that taking the right of choice away strips free will.   I feel like there is much more effort needed than just teaching people how to make healthier food choices–I don’t believe people think sodas are healthy.  It runs deeper; as a culture, our relationship to food and to our bodies is so skewed. While changing what EBT covers would make sense on the one hand, it also feels like a violation of rights to me. Then again, I know there are already restrictions in place, like no alcohol and no non-food items like toilet paper, and adding a no sugar/chemical-laden beverages makes sense..but what about sugar/chemical things like kids breakfast cereal? Or anything with hydrogenated fats? We are in a world where synthetic, “food like substances” (thanks Michael Pollan for the term) are ruling, and they are all contributing to the fat/sick/nearly dead people we have become.  It’s overwhelming–if you and i walked through a typical grocery store and collected only whole foods/real foods for EBT, what percentage of the store would we get? Something like 10? Maybe?

While pondering these things, I came across another article that seems to bridge the gap ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/food-stamps-healthy-food_b_984684.html?ref=diet-and-nutrition).  People that rely on the food stamp system are not necessarily uninformed about the health risks of highly processed food, but are desperate to feed their families right now.  But as this article points out, we are all losing:

“There is…substantial overlap between the population relying on SNAP (which has grown tremendously during this period of economic hardship) and the population relying on Medicaid. And so, we are also on the hook for a vastly larger allocation of tax dollars to Medicaid to pay the costs associated with poor health, and propagated by poor food (among a short list of other major influences).

Again, I am okay with using some of my hard-earned dollars to make sure my neighbor can receive medical care he or she can’t otherwise afford. But let’s face it, in this scenario, everyone loses.

We, the taxpayers, lose; we are spending some of our heard-earned money to create a problem, and more of our heard-earned money to — at best — only partially fix it. We are billed twice, and aren’t getting much reward for our pains.

The government loses because this inefficient allocation of funds siphons money away from other worthy causes: everything from education, to military preparedness, to the maintenance of our increasingly questionable infrastructure.

And the SNAP participants lose the most of all. They are the ones left to struggle with the combination of poverty and chronic disease.”

The system is broken.  We have the ADA telling us what foods we should eat, but we know they are fueled monetarily by producers of unhealthy “food-like substances.”  We have neighbors living in poverty eating these foods because they are the most affordable (and sometimes they just taste good–a bag of nutritionally-void, MSG-filled Doritos tastes damn good).  And then our neighbors eat so many delicious Doritios that their weight increases and their health declines and medical care becomes a necessity.  And taxpayers pay on both ends.  Rinse and repeat.

So, a solution?  Obviously a system so broken requires deep healing, and a quick solution isn’t readily available.  I think awareness is a good first step.  Dr. Katz offers a good second step in his article.

What comes next is up to each one of us.

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