A New York City market advertises the acceptance of food stamps (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Columnist, Food

You know food policy’s gone mainstream when Moby opines about it in the Wall Street Journal. And boy, did he take a beating. The musician’s op-ed, which suggested that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) shouldn’t pay for junk foods, got skewered in mainstream and social media.

Because I am clearly a slow learner, I am going to suggest that he’s right.

There are really two issues here. The first is whether we should limit SNAP choices. The second is whether everyone who thinks we should is demonstrating a callous disregard for the lives of the poor.

With SNAP, as with so many political issues, polarization is off the charts. According to Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut, “distrust among the parties involved . . . has become toxic and has effectively stalled all efforts by policymakers to change the regulations concerning SNAP to include nutrition standards.”

If we’re going to talk about that, we first have to step away from the idea everyone who wants to change it wants to punish the poor. That’s flat-out false. I’ve talked to people who have devoted their lives to public service who — off the record — believe changes to the program are in order. Given what happened to Moby, I can’t blame them for not wanting to say it out loud.

But consider this: If we had no SNAP at all, and a lawmaker proposed that we give $70 billion every year to low-income families to buy a suite of healthful foods, who among us would say no?

Moby performs in 2015 in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

We have programs that do just that. Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, provides mothers with young children money to buy a limited number of nutritious foods (produce, eggs, peanut butter, whole grains, some dairy, some cereal, infant formula and a few others), and I’ve never heard an objection. In fact, all the assistance programs funded by the USDA have some kind of nutrition restriction.

Let’s rebuild SNAP in WIC’s image. Instead of a list of what you can’t buy, let’s focus instead on what you can. We can argue about what makes the list, but I’d support a very wide variety. Fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, of course, but also meats, dairy, eggs and a robust list of shelf-stable and ready-to-eat foods. When time is limited and kitchens are often inadequate, foods like jarred pasta sauce and rotisserie chicken are important.

There is nothing inherently undignified in giving people assistance in that form. But none of us can help feeling the sting if something — anything — is taken away from us. In this case, that something is choice. But we’re starting from a program with no restrictions. Does that mean that we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner where any restriction is too punitive to fly? I sure hope not.

Because there is, of course, another question: Does the government have an obligation to spend taxpayer dollars in a way that is consistent with public health? I’d argue yes. I have argued yes, in the case of farm subsidies, and I’m going to ride that same horse into the SNAP debate. The question is how — or whether — we can fulfill both obligations: to the dignity and the health of low-income Americans.

I asked Diane Sullivan, a Massachusetts-based anti-poverty activist whose work I respect. She’s been in and out of poverty, including stints of homelessness and dependence on food stamps. When I asked her about the link between public money and public health, she said, “My first reaction is to think how many taxpayer-sponsored lunches or dinners do legislators have. Do we look at the type of purchases they make?” Good question! I think applying, say, the school lunch nutrition rules to politicians’ expensed meals is an idea with legs.

Sullivan agrees that government should try to improve the diets of the poor, but she wants carrots (both figurative and literal), not sticks. “Incentivizing and reward work,” she says. “Not punishment.” Her carrot list begins with giving the poor a seat at the policy table, extends to education programs and bonus money for buying fruits and vegetables, and connecting people to the farmers who grow their food. Together, she says, that’s better “than trying to control the diets of low-income people.”

I am sympathetic to her position. The question for me is whether I can justify taking those choices away because it will help further the goal of improving public health. While I support all Sullivan’s steps, SNAP is $70 billion. $70 billion! Shouldn’t we see if we can’t do some good with it?

It’s hard to know how much good we can do. But if a benefit for reasonably healthful foods shifts a few diets, introduces a few parents to unfamiliar foods, gets kids to eat a few more apples and drink a bit less soda — all for the same taxpayer investment — I’d count it a win.

Revamping SNAP might also have the effect of increasing demand in those neighborhoods where healthful foods are hardest to come by. Stores will stock what SNAP recipients can buy, and a pull from paying customers may be more effective at changing the retail landscape than a push by government regulation.

And it turns out that many SNAP recipients might be okay with it. In one study, a majority supported removing sugary drinks from the program and, in another, 68 percent and 83 percent of recipients and non-recipients, respectively, chose a program with nutritional incentives and restrictions on soda over a nonrestricted program.

Rep. Richard Nolan (D-Minn.) argues on Wednesday against a proposal to impose stricter work mandates on SNAP recipients. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

While Sullivan warns to take those numbers with a grain of salt, as research subjects are prone to giving researchers the “right” answers, I can’t reject it wholesale. If a reasonable proportion of recipients supports restrictions, why are they off the table for so many people? I will admit to some surprise at watching the objection to SNAP changes become an article of faith on the left. On no other issue are the food industry, which has been the big winner in SNAP as we know it, and the liberals speaking with one voice.

I think it’s important that we don’t just throw non-cooking poor people to the wolves with a chicken and a bag of lentils. I’d pair the revamp of SNAP with beefed-up funding for the USDA programs that teach cooking and nutrition (like SNAP-Ed and EFNEP). How ’bout a means test for farm subsidies, so anyone with, say, over a quarter-million of household income is ineligible, and redirect that money to help poor people eat better?

Timing matters here. When SNAP is facing such proposed restrictions as work requirements and drug testing, should we really be talking about remaking the program altogether? Problem is, there’s never a good time. “Don’t mess with it. That’s been the message for as long as I’ve been in the field,” says Schwartz. “Even in the Obama years: You’re not allowed to touch it.”

SNAP gets renewed only once every five years, and there will be reasons, every time, not to talk about fundamental changes. “We should be allowed to talk about it,” Schwartz says. Amen.

I don’t expect to convince many of you — okay, any of you — that we should remake SNAP. But if I could take the baby step of convincing you that not everyone who wants to remake SNAP is a mean-spirited jerk, I’d settle for that. If not, well, maybe Moby’s got a beer I can cry in.