Tag: obesity

SNAP: $15 Billion on Junk Food

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aims for recipients to “make healthy food choices within a limited budget.” SNAP is supposed to “permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet.”

However, the lofty goals of federal programs often differ from the actual results. It turns out that about $15 billion of SNAP benefits are for junk food. Apparently, recipients are not making the nutritious and healthy choices that the government promised.

SNAP, or food stamp, benefits totaled $67 billion in 2016. Food stamps can be used to buy just about any edible item in grocery stores other than alcohol, vitamins, and hot food. But exactly what is being purchased by the program’s 44 million recipients has been mainly shrouded in secrecy—until now.

A November study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally shed light on food stamp purchases. The study examined detailed data for SNAP and non-SNAP shoppers for one large food retailer over a one-year period.

The study found that SNAP shoppers bought slightly more junk food than non-SNAP shoppers. For example, 9.25 percent of total purchases by SNAP shoppers were for “sweetened beverages” such as cola, which compared to 7.1 percent for non-SNAP shoppers. At the same time, SNAP shoppers spent relatively less on nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables.

For SNAP shoppers, “sweetened beverages,” “prepared desserts,” “salty snacks,” “candy,” and “sugar” accounted for 22.6 percent of purchases. These junk food items thus accounted for $15 billion of SNAP purchases in 2016, if the study is representative of all SNAP purchases.

SNAP is a bloated program, and cutting out junk food would be one way to reduce costs. The program was created to tackle hunger, but Harvard University’s Robert Paarlberg noted that on a typical day less than 1 percent of households now face “very low food security.” That low figure contrasts with the 17 percent of U.S. households that currently receive food stamps.

The main food-related health problem for low-income households today is not hunger, but obesity. CDC data show that people with low incomes are more obese than people with high incomes, on average. In general, low-income Americans are suffering not from too little food, but from too much of the wrong kinds of food.

Ending SNAP’s junk food subsidies would likely cut demand for the program and reduce taxpayer costs. If policymakers decided that food stamps could only be used for items such as fruits and vegetables, fewer people would use the program, which would be a good thing.

An even better reform would be to end federal involvement in food stamps. Each state could then decide on the overall level of benefits it wanted, and on whether taxpayers should be subsidizing cola, candy, crackers, and cookies.

For more on food stamps, see here and here.

Jeb Bush, Obesity, Limited Government, and Me

Before he launched his presidential campaign, Jeb Bush released his emails from his eight years as governor. Now he’s released a 700-page book of selected emails. According to Amazon’s search function, I’m not in the book. But I did have a brief exchange with Governor Bush in 2003. As a libertarian, I wasn’t convinced by his argument. But I was impressed that the governor personally answered an email that I didn’t even send to him but rather to a member of his press staff. Governor Bush announced the creation of the Governor’s Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic, with such goals as:

  1. Recommend ways to promote the recognition of overweight and obesity as a major public health problem in Florida that also has serious implications for Florida’s economic prosperity;
  2. Review data and other research to determine the number of Florida’s children who are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight;
  3. Identify the contributing factors to the increasing burden of overweight and obesity in Florida;
  4. Recommend ways to help Floridians balance healthy eating with regular physical activity to achieve and maintain a healthy or healthier body weight;
  5. Identify and research evidenced-based strategies to promote lifelong physical activity and lifelong healthful nutrition, and to assist those who are already overweight or obese to maintain healthy lifestyles;
  6. Identify effective and culturally appropriate interventions to prevent and treat overweight and obesity;

When the announcement of this task force reached my inbox, courtesy of the governor’s office press list, I had this exchange (read from the bottom):

From: Jeb Bush [mailto:jeb [at] jeb.org]
Sent: Thursday, October 16, 2003 8:05 PM
To: David Boaz
Cc: jill.bratina [at] myflorida.com
Subject: FW: Executive Order Number 03-196

David, the reason for this is that obesity creates huge costs to government. If you believe in limited government, you should support initiatives that reduce it. I know you believe that it is not the role of government to deal with these demands, which I respect, but until you win the day, we need to respond to the challenge.

Jeb

—–Original Message—–
From: David Boaz [mailto:dboaz [at] cato.org]
Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2003 10:30 AM
To: DiPietre, Jacob
Subject: RE: Executive Order Number 03-196

Why is what I eat any of the government’s business? This is the very definition of big government.

—–Original Message—–
From: DiPietre, Jacob [mailto:Jacob.DiPietre [at] MyFlorida.com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2003 10:21 AM
To: ALL OF EOG, OPB & SDD
Subject: Executive Order Number 03-196

Memorandum
DATE: October 15, 2003
TO: Capital Press Corps
FROM: Jill Bratina, Governor’s Communications Director
RE: Executive Order Number 03-196
Please find attached an Executive Order creating the Governor’s Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic.

As I said, I wasn’t persuaded. I’ve written that obesity is not in fact a public health problem. It may be a widespread health problem, but you can’t catch obesity from doorknobs or molecules in the air. And the idea that our personal choices impose costs on government, through semi-socialized medicine and similar programs, has no good stopping point. If obesity is the government’s business, then so are smoking, salt intake, motorcycle riding, insufficient sleep, cooking all the nutrients out of vegetables, and an endless stream of potentially sub-optimal decisions. (I was going to include drinking whole milk, but … well, you know.)

I’m glad to note that last month Jeb Bush said that a federally developed anti-obesity video game, “Mommio,” was a waste of “scarce resources.” Maybe he’s coming around.

What the Washington Post Gets Wrong about Free Markets

This morning, the Washington Post ran an op-ed titled, “How free markets make us fatter, poorer and less happy.” Actually, the data suggest the exact opposite: free markets make us healthier, richer and happier. 

Free markets make us healthier 

First, the authors argue that free markets result in an abundance of temptations, such as candy and fattening food, and that encourages obesity. Obesity is a problem, but let’s put matters in proper perspective. The best proximate measure of the health of a nation is life expectancy. That is increasing. In fact, Americans have never lived longer. 

Moreover, a ban on fatty foods raises questions about personal freedom and responsibility. We allow people to buy alcohol, but discourage them from drinking and driving. Why not allow for sale of fatty foodstuffs, while discouraging gluttony through, for example, increased medical insurance premiums?   

The free market has been amazingly successful in increasing food production across the globe. In 1962, people in 51 countries consumed fewer than 2,000 calories per person per day. By 2011 that number fell to one (Zambia). All the while, life expectancy around the world has increased. 

Free markets make us richer

Wednesday Links

More about the Calorie Police

It’s nice to get quoted in the Los Angeles Times, even if the author obviously didn’t understand what I was getting at. I’ll try to clear up the confusion here.

Karen Caplan writes:

Does Kuznicki (or anyone else) really think that the goal of a healthy diet is simply to minimize the total number of calories consumed? (Perhaps these are the same folks who swear by Taco Bell’s Drive-Thru Diet.)

A 12-ounce serving of whole milk contains 12 grams of protein, along with 45% of the calcium and 36% of the vitamin D you need each day. The same amount of soy milk also has 12 grams of protein and 14% of the daily recommended intake of iron.

Care to guess how many vitamins and minerals are in a can of Coke?

I certainly don’t think that a healthy diet means only reducing one’s calorie intake. I do, however, believe that the stated goal of the policy was not to improve overall health, but to reduce obesity. And for that, which one do you pick?

a) consume fewer calories

or

b) get more calcium and vitamin D.

Does anyone seriously suggest that (b) is the right choice? Is this what passes for nutritional advice at the Los Angeles Times? Eat whatever you want, and as long as you take your vitamins, you won’t get fat?

The policy we’re talking about was not intended to make sure that people get all their vitamins and minerals. It was intended to curb obesity. And for that purpose it will do essentially nothing, as I noted, I still think correctly, in the original post.

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