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Why Nikki Haley’s Push To Limit Food Stamps To Healthy Items Is The Wrong Way To Fight Obesity

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"Why Nikki Haley’s Push To Limit Food Stamps To Healthy Items Is The Wrong Way To Fight Obesity"

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Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R-SC) state has a serious weight problem — and she knows it. That’s why last week, flanked by public health officials, Haley announced that she will push for a controversial overhaul of South Carolina’s nutritional assistance program that would limit food stamp purchases to “healthy” items. It’s a well-meaning idea meant to tackle the state’s rampant obesity epidemic and its resulting health care costs — unfortunately, the proposal isn’t the most effective way to tackle obesity, and implementing it could end up preventing low-income Americans from receiving adequate nutrition.

Any changes to a state’s food stamp program require a waiver from the federal government, and no state has successfully received one to date. The Charlotte Observer reports that Haley will hold group meetings with food stamp recipients, public health advocates, food makers, and various other officials to determine which foods should be purchasable with food stamps — and which shouldn’t — before requesting the waiver, in an effort to sway the federal government by putting up a unified front. That means that the specifics of Haley’s plan have yet to be fleshed out, and her office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for more details.

Still, Haley’s statements on the matter suggest that she wants to discourage South Carolina residents from using food stamps to purchase high-fat, high-calorie, and high-sodium products. “That $1 billion [in federal nutritional assistance] no longer will go to candy and chocolate and sodas and chips — it’ll be going to apples and oranges and things that are healthy,” she said.

That’s certainly an admirable goal considering South Carolina’s abysmal public health statistics: a full third of the state’s 4.7 million resident are obese, making it the eighth most obese state in America; another third are overweight; and the state ranks second in the country for obesity-related diabetes risk. Furthermore, the cost of treating obesity-related illnesses for low-income Americans accounts for almost 12 percent of national Medicaid spending — and likely an even higher percentage in South Carolina, where 18 percent of residents are on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But the efficacy — and the practical logistics — of Haley’s approach remains an open question. Proposals to limit food stamp purchases are a source of fierce debate among both public health and poverty advocates — not to mention supermarkets and food makers who argue that the transaction costs of separating SNAP from non-SNAP products would be too high or hurt product sales.

And then there’s the financial reality that healthy foods tend to provide relatively little caloric bang-for-the-buck, so to speak. As Melissa Boteach, a food insecurity scholar at the Center for American Progress (CAP), told ThinkProgress, “SNAP is supposed to be a supplemental program, but it usually doesn’t work that way. In fact, SNAP benefits are usually a low-income household’s entire food budget.” Seeing as South Carolina’s average monthly SNAP benefit in 2012 was $131.38, that doesn’t leave Americans receiving assistance with very many options for their food products, and so they understandably purchase the cheapest foods that will provide them with the most calories — which tend not to be healthy items. Boteach also points out that low-income regions with a high proportion of Americans on SNAP tend to have mini-marts, rather than supermarkets with extensive selections.

Still, experts agree that something must be done to address the public health issues associated with SNAP, and some studies have shown that Americans on the program are more overweight than those who are not. Ultimately, the extraordinarily unhealthy American nutritional culture must change in order to truly address obesity. In the mean time, Boteach believes that a more effective — and less harmful — way to encourage healthier eating by food stamp recipients would be to provide discounts and financial incentives through SNAP for buying healthier items.

In fact, a federal program to do just that was launched in 2011. The Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) gives SNAP recipients up to a 30 percent discount for buying healthy foods. The pilot program’s results won’t be seen until later this year — but if it proves successful, it could serve as a more effective model for reform than Haley’s seemingly blunt approach.

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