‘Junk food’ bill tries to shame the poor

Ravaged by brain cancer, unable to work and living in his dead mother’s house that was falling down around him, my uncle needed help to put food on the table, to pay his bills, to get by.

My mother, herself in the beginning stages of dementia, provided what support she could, but my uncle still qualified for what’s now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was then just called food stamps.

The program is 100 percent federally funded and helps low-income individuals and families buy food through a small, monthly benefit.

The average person in Maine who qualifies for SNAP receives less than $125 per month, which translates to less than $1.50 per meal per day to help them buy food.

The limitations on what you can buy are pretty strict: no alcohol or tobacco, no diapers or paper towels, no toothpaste, soap or laundry detergent, no prepared or hot foods, and no vitamins or medicine.

Maine’s Legislature is currently considering a new restriction that would prohibit using food stamps to purchase “junk food.”

The bipartisan bill has the support of Gov. Paul LePage and would direct the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to request a waiver from the federal government to allow the new restriction.

To date, no such waiver has ever been granted, and for good reason. Such a ban would be hard to implement, expensive to administer and is unlikely to have the desired impact. In fact, there’s not even a consistent definition of what “junk food” really is.

Giving the supporters of the bill the benefit of the doubt, their stated goal is to encourage low-income individuals and families to make better food choices and to mandate that taxpayer dollars can’t be spent on things like candy and soda.

Despite the good intentions, the ultimate outcome of the debate – which, again, isn’t likely to lead to a change in the federal guidelines – is to further shame and punish low-income families, as if being poor isn’t bad enough.

The mythology of lazy people gaming the system has been used for decades to attack programs like nutrition assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Perhaps it goes back to our Puritan roots – when the notion prevailed that God rewarded the righteous and was punishing the poor for some deficiency.

We see this notion play out every time there’s a criminal charge brought against someone for “welfare fraud.” I cringe every time someone gets caught dumping bottled water – purchased with food stamps – in an attempt to collect the bottle deposit for cash that can be spent on booze or cigarettes.

The reaction has consequences for every honest person just trying to feed their kids or an elderly relative.

According to an analysis of the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, 64 percent of Maine families who receive food assistance have children in them. About 34 percent are families who include an elderly or disabled member.

And, it’s important to know, almost half of them have at least one person in the family who is working. They just don’t make very much money, with the median income less than $17,000 a year, according to the USDA.

Poverty in Maine is real, and its causes are complex.

If we want to encourage low-income families to buy healthier foods, there are better ways to do it, including increasing access to local foods and providing higher monthly benefits that are specifically directed toward fresh foods, such as produce, and better education on how to identify and prepare healthier foods.

But more importantly, we should not target families for ridicule because they might not always make the best decision about diet and grocery shopping. It’s as if we expect poor families to show repentance for accepting aid by subsisting on a bland diet free from sugar, salt or caffeine.

It’s as if we’re willing to admit that people are poor and need help but that the help means they have to agree to suffer to get it. Only quinoa, cold rice, day-old bread and lima beans.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can gorge ourselves on 1,500 empty calories of sweet and salty goodness, content that we’ve helped the poor to live a healthier life.