Food Nannying For the Poor? Restrictions on Organic and Healthy Food in Food Assistance

wisconsin organic food choices restricted for WIC and food assistance.
Food assistance program. Photo by USDA.

Wisconsin’s Women, Infants and Children’s Program “Approved Foods” brochure is cheerfully decorated with stock photos of vegetables and smiling children. Inside is a well-intentioned (or well lobbied) and utterly misguided attempt to… what? Help people? Make sure those in food assistance programs eat healthy food? Or cheaper food?

Politifact reports:

“State Rep. Dean Kaufert said he was after things like soda and nachos when he proposed to limit how much junk food Wisconsinites could buy with food stamps. “Hopefully, people’s health will get better,” the Neenah Republican said in March 2013.

But when the former potato chip salesman’s bill came up May 7, 2013, for a vote, there were signs of indigestion on the Assembly floor in Madison.”The list of foods that you’d be restricted from buying under this is — I don’t know who came up with it. I think it’s kind of shocking,” complained Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo. Clark continued by saying “we’re going to prevent — or limit — the extent to which” food stamps could be used for a long list of foods — including organic foods.”‘

Sadly, it’s true–the Approved Foods brochure prevents the purchase of organic food in many staple categories, including rice, beans, milk and eggs, cereals, and baby food. It does limit the purchase of some many unhealthy foods like white bread (whole wheat bread is allowed) and canned fruits with added sugar (those without added sugar are allowed). It also limits the purchase of “luxury items” like alcohol and chocolate milk. However, it also limits the most important thing we have when caring for our health: choice.

Each of us has unique dietary requirements for the nourishment of our bodies–something that is not acknowledged or respected in the brochure. A vegan, for example, would be prohibited from buying nuts and organic beans as well as non-dairy milks (except for soy, which can cause health problems). My body asks for the nourishment animal products provide, but if I were eating within these guidelines I would only be able to purchase factory-farm eggs, dairy, and meat, as organic, “cage free” and “certified humane” products are prohibited. This not only leaves me with a deficit of real nourishment, it also forces me to choose between my body’s needs and my principles. And then there’s the blanket prohibition on organic food. Perhaps the authors of the brochure (our elected officials) see organic food as a luxury. For me, keeping poison out of my body is a necessity.

The real issue isn’t just that poor people are prohibited from using their food assistance to buy healthy food, it’s the profound disrespect that is inherent in micromanaging another human being’s food choices. Some of the restrictions are strangely specific: 16 oz bags of beans only, no sharp cheddar cheese, only certain brands of juice and cereal. These restrictions carry this underlying implication: poor people are too stupid to choose their own food. Officials from Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee said the bill creates a “‘grocery nanny system’ restricting the freedom of food choice for families, regardless of health or cultural needs.”

If we’re going to give people food assistance, it’s important to respect them as intelligent human beings capable of choosing their own food. If we want people to be empowered to live without food assistance, it’s important to educate them about health rather than restricting their choices.

But the responsibility for food assistance doesn’t rest solely on the government’s shoulders. If the government does an inadequate job, is it not our responsibility to make up for it? Regardless of our income bracket, we have the power to dictate our own food choices. We can empower others to eat nourishing meals three times a day. Here are some ways we can empower ourselves and others in their food choices:

  • Learn about and educate your community about wild foods.
  • Create urban and community gardening projects.
  • Donate to the local food bank or community kitchen.
  • Build community around food.
  • Support/participate in food gleaning projects (that glean good but unsellable produce from farms).
  • Donate a CSA share.
  • Work directly with farmers to create healthier food assistance.
  • Start or support a creative food empowerment project like one of these.

Have another idea? Share it below in the comments.

Nicholas Tippins

2 thoughts on “Food Nannying For the Poor? Restrictions on Organic and Healthy Food in Food Assistance

  1. At least you are speaking out about this deplorable practice, and presenting some good ideas. Let’s all do the same! Even from a practical point of view, doesn’t the government realize that healthier people will require less (expensive) health care? Another idea: Bring up the subject to candidates for president.

    1. Yes, very true! And I appreciate your idea… I’ve lost a great deal of faith in politics, but those who are compelled to that arena may be able to create change that way, too.

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