George Boardman: LaMalfa sort of shows concern for health of food stamp recipients | TheUnion.com
George Boardman
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George Boardman: LaMalfa sort of shows concern for health of food stamp recipients

Some people have portrayed Rep. Doug LaMalfa as a heartless ogre for campaigning to reduce the number of people eligible for food stamps, even though 12 percent of the families in his district fall below the poverty line.

Other people suggest LaMalfa's a hypocrite for taking food out of the mouths of people while his family farm collected almost $5.3 million in rice and wheat subsidies from 1995 through 2013.

But I'm here to suggest he also cares about the health and well being of food stamp recipients, as evidenced by a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing to discuss the nutritional aspects of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The hearing was prompted by a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released in November that showed SNAP recipients spend 20 percent of every dollar on soda, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar — your basic junk food diet. This is in line with the consumption habits of the general population, but they're spending their own money instead of hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

Food stamps currently allow low-income beneficiaries to purchase anything edible other than hot meals, tobacco and alcohol, and the hearing was held to determine if it is practical to extend the prohibition to junk food. We're talking about $14 billion in sales for the food industry.

A spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents major supermarket chains, said such a move would hurt the food and beverage industry while forcing the government to make unwieldy decisions on nutrition in the process. "Cashiers end up being food police at check-out time," he said.

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Democrats on the committee, who are regularly accused by conservatives of trying to create a nanny state, defended freedom of choice.

"Look at the complexity you're going to put in the grocery store," said Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia. "You can't deny them their freedoms to make choices without violating their pursuit of happiness."

But LaMalfa, apparently concerned about the health problems that stem from a steady diet of junk food, was having none of it. He noted that cash register scanners already distinguish eligible food items from those that are prohibited.

"Shouldn't we try? Maybe it's worth the trouble," he said. "Is it really that much tougher to differentiate between soda pop and tobacco?"

If this sounds like a reversal of the usual Republican stance on how people should be allowed to lead their lives, you are onto something. Take, for example, the House Freedom Caucus, which put together a list of regulations and rules they want the Trump administration to examine or revoke during its first 100 days.

Number one on the list is the National School Lunch Program, which has been roundly criticized by Republicans for mandating what school children can eat for lunch. According to the caucus, the program's standards on the healthiness of food "have proven to be burdensome and unworkable for schools to implement."

Never mind that a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that meals served through the school lunch program were nutritionally superior to those students brought from home: more fruit, fewer refined grains, and fewer calories from added sugar and solid fats. This program is just more government overreach, according to conservatives.

The Republicans' seemingly contradictory position — objecting to micromanaging school lunch programs while trying to dictate what food stamp recipients can eat — is consistent with the conservative view that such programs are the principal obstacles to their vision of limited government.

Conservatives have particular scorn for programs like food stamps, which they view as populated by freeloaders who are too lazy to work, and they see as another means of getting people to rely on a government check. Local conservative blogger George Rebane summed up the argument recently when he wrote that liberals want to "promote raw democracy through increasing the size of compliant, ignorant, and powerless electorates (e.g. through … expanded wealth transfers …)"

Efforts have been made in the past to prohibit food stamp recipients from buying steak and lobster (as if they could afford such luxuries on the meager allotments they have to work with), prove they're looking for work, and pass drug tests. So it is perfectly logical that Republicans would try to deny recipients their comfort food.

These are not people living high off the hog. Slightly over 29,000 households in LaMalfa's first congressional district with a median income of $20,463 collected food stamps during the 2015 fiscal year, according to the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census.

More than half the families are below the poverty line, and 29 percent of them were still eligible for food stamps despite the fact that two or more people in the household worked in the last 12 months. As you would expect, 89 percent of them are white.

These are people who truly need government assistance as opposed to, say, the 27 farmers in LaMalfa's district who collected at least $100,000 in farm subsidies in 2014, part of the $20.4 million doled out to district farmers that year. That kind of money would buy a lot of food stamps.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

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