Cut the Fat From Food Stamps

Food stamps shouldn't be used to purchase junk food.

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The government shutdown may be over, but Republicans still want cuts and Democrats still want to preserve health care. The way to achieve both lies in the next item on Congress's to-do list: the farm bill. The biggest-ticket item in the farm bill by far is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – known as SNAP, or food stamps – and billions of SNAP dollars go for candy and junk food. As a doctor, I want to cut the junk food from SNAP. And that will appeal to Republicans' fiscal sense and make millions of people healthier, making Obamacare more affordable.

Preventing the chronic diseases that cause seven out of every 10 deaths in America could save billions of dollars and millions of lives every year. Lifting this weight would increase productivity and lessen the financial drain on low-income Americans and large corporations alike. Fortunately, this is easy enough to do; chronic diseases are largely preventable and treatable through modest changes in diet and lifestyle.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

In the past several months, there has been a great deal of momentum towards making SNAP more nutritious and prevention more achievable. During House farm bill negotiations, New York Mayor Bloomberg and 18 other major city mayors sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, urging them to require the Department of Agriculture to authorize waivers for city and states to experiment with eliminating junk food from the program. Additionally, The Healthy Food Choices Act of 2013 (H.R.3073), quietly introduced by Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., last month and cosponsored by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., both of whom are physicians, offers a federal plan to improve the program's nutritional content, a move that could save millions in federal health care costs.

The bill simply calls for SNAP's purchasing standards to align with those of the nutritional program for Women, Infants, and Children – essentially removing junk food from the program. At less than one hundred and fifty words, we can't expect this humble piece of legislation to lift the country out of an economic crisis, eliminate costly chronic disease and alleviate poverty – much less end our current quagmire. But it could be an important part of a larger paradigm shift to bring about a fiscally and physically healthier America.

Making SNAP healthier by eliminating meat, soda, processed snack foods and candy from the program's purchasing standards is a sensible idea. These unhealthful foods have no place in a taxpayer-funded program designed to improve low-income Americans' nutrition. And removing them from the program would be consistent with the concerns of mayoral leaders who represent millions of Americans.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

The Healthy Food Choices Act of 2013 would also increase opportunities for the hungry to make healthier food choices, since it would increase access to fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods essential to proper nutrition. It would help eradicate food deserts by creating demand for healthful foods, as did the WIC program upon which SNAP would be modeled.

The bill currently lies with the House Agriculture Committee, which should refer it to the full House. This legislation represents an opportunity to address the rising toll of chronic disease – especially among those whose health and economic resources are already disadvantaged. By doing so, we will reduce government spending and improve our country's health. Now that's something that all lawmakers should be able to support.