Food Stamps: Extreme Makeover

Can we rethink food stamps? Instead of nickel-and-diming the program with endless arguments about what should or shouldn't be paid for, and what is or isn't junk food, let's scrap it altogether and build it fresh.

The program (technically, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) has become a subsidy for the calorie-dense, nutrition-challenged diet of processed food that has gotten us away from home cooking and played a big part in making us, as a nation, fat and sick. The problem is particularly acute for food stamp recipients, who eat fewer vegetables, fruits, and whole grains than the population as a whole, and drink a whole lot more soda.

It's hard to countenance using tax dollars to worsen an urgent public health problem, particularly when we might use those same dollars to mitigate it. Instead of underwriting our diet-as-usual, let's make food stamps both a safety net and an opportunity. We'll make sure nobody goes hungry and, at the same time, try to motivate and educate recipients to make some better choices.

Let's limit food stamps to staples, the building blocks of healthful, home-cooked meals. Here are my candidates:

  • Fruits and vegetables (fresh, canned, dried, or frozen)
  • Grains, legumes, and nuts (rice, beans, pasta, oatmeal, peanut butter)
  • Cooking and baking basics (flour, sugar, oil, herbs and spices)
  • Meat, poultry, and fish (fresh or frozen, unprocessed)
  • Dairy and eggs (including minimally processed, like yogurt or cottage cheese)
  • Some staples and condiments (bread, jelly, mustard, soy sauce)

We can argue about the specifics (and I hope we will), but you get the idea. It's food you cook with.

And, to help people cook with it, let's start a network of classes taught by volunteers from the food community -- an adjunct, perhaps, to Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. I bet I'm one tweet away from a hundred other food pros who'd volunteer with me in a heartbeat. Given that it's un- or underemployment that's driven many families to food stamps, maybe we can put some of the freed-up time to good use.

It will still be emphatically possible to eat a calorie-dense, nutrition-challenged diet on a revamped SNAP, and nobody expects that our collective diet will be overhauled overnight. But we owe it both to taxpayers and to food stamp recipients to make the attempt. It means that SNAP enrollees won't have the same food choices as those who pay their own way, but, far from being an affront to dignity, I think this approach is an appeal to it. In good times and bad, our government will make sure those of us who are struggling have the means and the tools to put healthful, home-cooked meals on the table for our families. What parent -- what person -- would be insulted by that?

It is our obligation as a nation, and as a community, to feed the hungry among us. Let's try and feed them well.