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Let them eat cake

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Rep. Mary Bentley - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Rep. Mary Bentley

An unproductive and harmful bill attempting to curb obesity passed easily out of committee last week at the state legislature. House Bill 1035 attempts to address this serious public health issue by preventing poor families who rely on SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps) from purchasing certain items such as candy and sodas.

If only it were that simple. This bill would not improve public health, and instead would harm food-insecure children, seniors and people trying to make ends meet while they look for a job.

The dividing line between "good" and "bad" foods would be based on WIC (Women, Infants and Children), a program created for the specific nutritional needs of low-income pregnant women and infants. Using WIC guidelines doesn't make sense nutritionally because they will be too restrictive; WIC is designed to be a nutrition supplement to SNAP, not a standalone program. Restricting SNAP in this way would also hurt retailers who must bear the cost of upgrading systems because SNAP is done through EBT cards while WIC still uses paper.

This bill also misrepresents who is eating unhealthy food in Arkansas and why they are eating it (hint: Just removing candy bars won't help). First, most Americans do not eat healthily, not just poor Arkansans. This bill blames poor people's grocery shopping choices for a wider public health issue, even though a U.S. Department of Agriculture study last year showed that SNAP recipients purchase most of their groceries — from soda to fresh vegetables — at very similar rates as everyone else. Low-income residents do have worse health outcomes, but that result involves more than the types of food they are buying (access to playgrounds and sidewalks play a role, for instance). We didn't get to be ranked sixth in the nation for obesity just because our lowest income residents have access to soda.

Second, the nature of why people eat what they do is complex. Unhealthy food consumption is a multifaceted topic steeped in hard-to-change factors like cultural norms and the physical layout of communities. Unfortunately, getting people to prepare healthy food at home is not as easy as taking candy from a baby. Real contributors to obesity include a lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables, food deserts, exhausted food banks and a lack of education about physical fitness and nutrition.

Third, this bill ignores the realities that working families face when trying to feed their families. Cooking healthy can be expensive, inconvenient and time-intensive. Fresh vegetables are often unavailable at retailers in poor neighborhoods and they spoil quickly, which means they may not last long enough for families in food deserts who make infrequent trips to the store. Items like dried beans and rice are not edible without preparation, and it takes time and knowledge to make those staples into foods that are both healthy and appealing to children.

Furthermore, taking candy bars and sodas out of the equation doesn't change the fact that Arkansas is the Cheese Dip Capital of the World. We have conceived of every imaginable way to turn even the most innocent vegetable into a cardiologist's nightmare. Okra can and will be fried and salted; the same goes for chicken and corn. That cheap bag of potatoes can be mashed, scalloped or baked and heaped with butter. No raw ingredient is safe from a nutritionally illiterate chef, no matter the income group. Outlawing certain foods for SNAP families won't change what people do with a potato once they get home. Only education will do that. If we don't help people learn how to connect what they are eating to their personal health, it won't matter. If we don't improve access to fresh, nutritious ingredients, it won't matter. If we don't improve nutrition education in our state, it won't matter.

Obesity is a dangerous, complex foe that warrants an equally thoughtful and nuanced solution, not an oversimplification and a finger wag. Bills like HB 1035 underestimate the massive challenge of changing public behavior and undermine the meaningful work being done to improve public health in Arkansas (such as efforts from the Hunger Relief Alliance and the Governor's Healthy Active Arkansas plan). If the legislature wants to support access to healthy foods, restricting already limited food budget supports is the wrong thing to do. Improving nutrition education, safety net programs and incentives like Double Up Food Bucks (which doubles SNAP dollars at farmers markets) would make a difference.

Eleanor Wheeler is a senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.


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