As public health advocates and fiscal hawks float ideas to combat obesity and save money, Illinois and other states are proposing to limit food stamps to healthier food.

As public health advocates and fiscal hawks float ideas to combat obesity and save money, Illinois and other states are proposing to limit food stamps to healthier food. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / June 20, 2012)

Simon and other critics note that many of these groups receive significant funding from food manufacturers. The depository's top donors include Kraft Foods and Sara Lee, and funders of the national Feeding America organization, based in Chicago, include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods.

Regarding the potential conflict of interest, Feeding America responds: "We advocate for policies that are in best interests of our clients — the people who use the programs. Our policies are not driven by our donors."

Kraft and Coca-Cola each referred the Tribune to an industry association for comment. A coalition of anti-hunger groups and food-industry associations and lobbyists issued a statement last week, saying: "Rather than limiting food choice and layering over an already complex program with additional hurdles for recipients that may cause stigma and result in confusion and nonparticipation, efforts should focus on nutritional education, access and outreach."

Although public health groups and anti-hunger activists are split on the issue of food stamp restrictions, they both oppose the funding cuts proposed for the program under the new farm bill, which currently stand at $4.5 billion, to $33 billion, over the next 10 years.

Simon says she believes transparency and data-based reforms are the best way to protect the program. The status quo "only makes the program more vulnerable for attack … because the public health implications are mind-boggling," she said.

That statement echoes concerns expressed as early as 1964, when Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas spoke out on the issue during a congressional debate to determine what restrictions would be included in the then-brand new Food Stamp Act:

"I do not want to include Coca-Cola or Pepsi Cola or any of that family," Douglas said. "If we include them, this will be used as propaganda against an otherwise splendid and much needed measure. I want to help the poor and hungry and not sacrifice them for Coca-Cola. The senator (Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana) knows these have no nutritional value — none at all. … The only benefit I see in the present language is that it will increase the sales of Coca-Cola and other cola and soft drink companies."

But in the end, soda was allowed under the food stamp program.

At recent nutrition classes for Chicago families with children at risk of obesity, parents talked about government strategies that might help families with children like theirs make better choices. Most of the participants were low-income, but the organizers did not ask them to disclose whether they received food stamps, which are obtained in Illinois through the Link card.

The parents agreed that educational programs on how to read nutritional labels, eat and shop better could be effective, as could bringing down the price of high-quality fruits and vegetables. But they were split over whether it would help to prohibit purchases of soda and junk food.

"Maybe there should be (restrictions) so kids could be healthier," said Veronica De La Vega, who went on an educational field trip to a Humboldt Park grocery store with her family. "But most people will still do whatever it takes to get what they want. They need the education in order to get healthier habits."

Others felt that removing unhealthy items from food stamp eligibility could, at least, encourage better choices.

"My friend has the Link card, and she comes over with soda and chips even though I try to tell her that I'm trying not to let my kids eat that," said Lisa Peszat, who attended a class in McKinley Park. "It's just too easy to get it."

"They should really put some restrictions on it so people are more conscious of what they are buying for their kids," said Ana Alejandre.

One food stamp user at a South Side farmers market who asked that her name not be used favored restrictions on junk food but felt they should be balanced with other modifications to the program, which prohibits the purchase of warm and hot foods.

"I find it interesting that with SNAP you can buy 9 million unhealthy things but you can't buy a rotisserie chicken," she said. "I am a big fan of restricting soda, but I would rather they make healthy food more affordable while they discourage the other things. … Where a lot of programs fail is when they are saying 'no this' and 'no that' but they don't give you a doable alternative to encourage a better choice."

Illinois State Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, last year introduced a bill to restrict food stamp purchases that never even got assigned to a committee for a hearing. She predicts that if obesity-related disease and health care costs continue to rise, so will efforts to add restrictions.

"We need to be creating healthier people in this country," she said. "This is the first generation that may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, and that is largely due to diet-related problems like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Every session, someone introduces one of these bills, and I think we are just going to keep pushing."

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