The federal food stamp program without a doubt provides vital help to many individuals and families who truly need assistance in putting food on their tables. Is it a program without fault? No. Can it be improved? Of course. But tinkering with guidelines or purposefully politicizing food stamps in a presidential election year are not the best ways to make a program that serves tens of millions of Americans more efficient and effective.
Nevertheless, food stamps have become a major topic in the Republican presidential primary, and attempts to restrict what can be purchased with them increasingly appear on state legislative agendas. Both make it extremely difficult to promote rational discussion about the role of government assistance in promoting a healthier population.
Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have made the food stamp program an issue. Gingrich, especially, has used the issue to hammer President Barack Obama, claiming that he is the "best food stamp president in American history." That's demagoguery at its worst. The truth is that while the number of food stamps recipients is at all-time high, the greatest growth did not occur on Obama's watch.
A recent month-by-month analysis revealed that the number of people receiving food stamps increased by 14.7 million during the George W. Bush years and by 14.2 million during the Obama presidency. About 1 in 7 Americans -- around 45 million people -- now use food stamps, an increase of about 14 million in the last three years. Much of that growth, however, is tied directly to the Great Recession and the concomitant loss of jobs that have deep roots in the Bush, not the Obama, presidency.
Efforts at the state level to strictly define what can and can not be purchased with food stamps are mean-spirited. The latest attempt in Florida is a case in point. There, state Sen. Rhonda Storms is promoting legislation to ban the purchase of soda, candy, snacks and other items she considers unhealthy by food stamp recipients. That sounds well-intentioned -- no one can argue that sugary drinks, high-calorie snacks and fast foods are healthy -- but overlooks a significant fact.
Food stamp recipients aren't the only individuals who purchase and consume unhealthy amounts of soft and other sugary drinks, fast-food meals high in fats, calories and salt, and other items of dubious nutritional value. A majority of Americans do not receive food stamps, but they still consume large amounts of the foods cited by Storms. They purposefully do so rather than prepare meals that make fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and other healthy foodstuffs a regular component of their diet. If grandstanding politicians want to reform America's eating habits, they should direct their attention to the broader rather than narrower picture.
Finding ways to educate people about healthier eating habits, to make healthy foods more widely available and less expensive and to promote more exercise among all socio-economic groups would be far more productive to the overall health and nutrition of Americans than humiliating food stamp recipients and nit-picking current regulations for political gain.