There are not many issues where Michael Bloomberg and I see eye-to-eye. Actually, I can’t think of any at the moment, but when it comes to banning soda from Food Stamp (now called Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – SNAP) purchases, I’m on board. But for a different reason – and I think it should go further.
In a former life, I worked for several years at a local grocery chain and saw firsthand the waste and abuse of the Food Stamp program. It was maddening.
My first experience was when I was working in a store in the Southside of Richmond. One afternoon I noticed several small children come in succession to buy gum or a candy bar with a $1 food stamp. At that time two things were in play – $1 Food Stamps required no ID, and actual change, not a voucher, was given in return. This in itself would not have been so unusual, except that each child walked out of the store and handed the cash to a man waiting outside. They would usually repeat this several times depending on the number of children that were involved.
It was irritating enough that tax dollars were being spent on candy and gum, but I figured they didn’t create the situation they were in. What happened at the end of this cycle is what really set my blood to boiling. After the children were gone, the man would enter the store, go straight to the beer and wine and come back to the cash register with his favorite libation. All paid for in change from the candy purchases. This was not one man, not the same children, and the scheme was going on all across the city.
On the one hand, I salute their ingenuity, everyone got something – the kids got candy, the wino got the wine, and the taxpayer got screwed. I did put a stop to that in our store by forcing the children to use the change on subsequent visits, so they moved on to other stores I’m sure. Eventually the Department of Agriculture had stores start issuing voucher receipts instead of change to $1 food stamps, something they had required all along for larger denominations.
But that wasn’t the only scam in town. Every Friday morning another man (always the same one) would enter the store and proceed to load up two shopping carts with sodas, chips, dips, cookies, juices, and sandwich items. About once a month in the summer he’d include all the fixings for a cookout (steak and potatoes) and by the number of steaks, it was no small gathering. Oddly, this man would always pay with $1 stamps. Hundreds of them sometime. Again, no ID required to say you are a validated recipient.
After several weeks of this I asked one of the managers, a former police officer, what in the world was going on. He told me they had house parties and the admission was $2 in Food Stamps. This man was one of the organizers. What did they do at these parties? Gambling and girls. I presume those required cash, but the food was provided courtesy of the rest of us.
I contacted the local Department of Agriculture office and offered them copies of the receipts which clearly showed a pattern of abuse and even invited the field office supervisor to come witness this himself. He declined saying there was nothing he could do about it even if he saw it. I saw it as a matter of ‘would not’ rather than ‘could not’.
In all the years that I witnessed hundreds of Food Stamp shoppers descend on the store on the 1st of each month, I can think of only ONE shopper who routinely shopped for nutritious foods for her family. ONE. The rest filled their carts with junk food, sodas, high priced meats and seafood, premium label foods, and other items that are not going to feed a family for very long or very well.
The WIC (Women, Infant, Children), administered by the USDA at national and regional levels and administered by State Health Departments is paid for by taxpayer dollars through grants to the States. WIC requires stringent adherence to nutritional values on all items purchased. No one criticizes that program for its stipulations.
The Food Stamp program should do the same. For those who cry discrimination and say that those poor souls will be embarrassed by having to separate out their items; they already do as they are not allowed to buy paper products, detergents, or hygiene items on the program. Personally, I’d rather them buy detergent than chips or steak if we’re paying for it.
Bloomberg and Patterson have the right discussion, but the wrong reason. Banning sugary drinks to fight obesity is like banning going to Virginia Beach to prevent drowning. It completely omits the rest of the junk food category. For their stated intent, it doesn’t go far enough.
From my point of view, sugary drinks need to be banned, along with junk food and premium foods – because the recipients are eating on our tab – with money that we worked for and earned. Allowing them to select items without any restrictions makes as much sense as sending them to Ruth’s Chris® while we eat at Taco Bell®. When they earn it, they can buy and eat whatever they want.