I presume you saw the news last week that obesity levels in poor, preschool-aged children showed a modest drop. As Margaret Talbot notes in The New Yorker, the numbers aren’t big, but finally they are headed in the right direction. She credits, at least in part, a policy change in the WIC program, which provides food stamps for poor mothers and their children — a policy change that challenges both left-wing and right-wing dogma on feeding the poor. Excerpt:
In 2009, the U.S.D.A. made a major revision in the list of foods that could be bought with coupons from the federal program known as W.I.C. (short for the Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children). The new package included more healthy items (fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, and low-fat milk) and fewer dubious ones (sweetened juices, cereals and breads that are not whole-grain). This was significant not only because the changes were so purposefully aimed at improving nutrition for low-income Americans but because W.I.C. serves so many of them—fifty per cent of American infants, twenty-five per cent of children under five, and twenty-six per cent of postpartum women are enrolled in the program.
In many of the low-income neighborhoods where women and children rely heavily on W.I.C., supermarkets are few and far between. Residents with limited funds for transportation are often forced to shop at the kind of gas-station quick marts and dusty-shelved corner stores where they can find plenty of beef jerky, chips, and soda and, other than a bruised banana or two, not much in the way of produce. But when a team of researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity studied W.I.C.-authorized stores across Connecticut, they found that the stores had responded to the new rules by “improving the availability and variety of healthy foods.” The businesses “found a way,” as the researchers from Yale put it, to make room for low-fat milk on their shelves, and to stock fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads and other products they had not sold before. In so doing, they revealed a previously unsatisfied consumer demand. The researchers found that nearby stores that did not accept W.I.C. also started offering healthier foods, either because they now had new supply chains to take advantage of, or because customers were now asking for them, or both.
This is the government using the power of its purse to push healthier eating — and to influence the market to provide better food to the poor. This suggests too that the poor will eat healthier food if it is available to them, and they can afford it. This is the kind of nanny-statism I can get behind. If people want to spend their own money on junk food, that’s their business, but if taxpayers are paying for it, then I see nothing wrong with limiting the junk food the poor can buy with taxpayer dollars, and incentivizing them to buy healthier food for themselves and their children — especially their children, whose diets are at the mercy of their caregivers. Obesity among the poor carries with it enormous costs to the health care system. Think of this WIC policy shift as an investment not only in healthier kids, but in saving money down the line from having to treat adults who get diabetes and other obesity-related diseases.
Here’s the kicker: It’s not the Palinesque Right preventing this approach to subsidized food for the poor from being expanded to the broader food stamp program, but the victim-coddling left, in the form of hunger activist groups:
Schwartz and other nutrition advocates would like to see the W.I.C.-style promotion of healthy eating extended to the federal food-stamp program, known as SNAP. But, as Jane Black points out in Slate this week, there the opposition comes not primarily from the Republican right but from the food industry, which sells an awful lot of soda and snacks to people with food stamps—and, more surprisingly, from anti-hunger organizations. A host of mayors, including Bloomberg and Cory Booker, of Newark, have called on Congress to allow limits on the use of food stamps to purchase sugary beverages. A poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that sixty-nine per cent of the general public and even fifty-four per cent of SNAP recipients agreed that such limits were a good idea. But anti-hunger organizations are firmly opposed to any such changes. Black quotes one advocate’s comment to Food Safety News: “Our view is that people have the smarts to purchase their own food, and we’re opposed to all limitations on food choice.”
The anti-hunger organizers probably worry—and with good reason—that in the current political environment, any move to reform what food stamps cover will morph into a they’ll-only-spend-it-on-junk-food excuse to gut the whole program. But the W.I.C. reforms show that that’s not an inevitable outcome.
I’m going to New Orleans today to talk with the actor Wendell Pierce about his great work in fighting food deserts in his native city. He has helped start a chain of small food stores in the poorer parts of the city, helping to make sure the poor have more access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and to make retailing healthier food in the inner city more economically viable. I’m going to ask him what he thinks of this report. By the way, I’ll be in the city for part of today. I’ve got several posts queued up to drop throughout the day, but please be patient with comments approval; it’s going to be slow until I get home.