By, Jim Hanna
Originally published 2/13/18 in the Portland Press Herald.
I am grateful to hear Gov. LePage express concern for the well-being of people made poor by an economy that is not working for everyone. He demonstrates courage by challenging companies that poison people with unhealthy food products. His vision of better nutrition for Mainers is a goal that the Cumberland County Food Security Council shares.
The governor recently said, “When we could no longer deny that smoking was causing suffering and early death for millions of people, the government finally stood up to Big Tobacco and did the right thing. The time has come to stand up to Big Sugar and ensure our federal dollars are supporting healthy food choices for our neediest people.”
Search photos available for purchase: Photo Store →The Cumberland County Food Security Council believes that government should stand up to companies that prioritize profit over people. We agree that access to food with negative health impacts should be discouraged.
But why limit the access of only poor people? Since all of us are subject to the seductive marketing and addictive nature of food infused with high-fructose corn syrup and sugar, it is right to consider prohibitions on those products for everyone. Households that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits purchase no more sweetened beverages than any other household does, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Let’s look at how we have reined in tobacco’s influence. Advertising for tobacco products is now illegal. People under 18 are no longer allowed to purchase cigarettes. How soon might we hear, “I’ll need to see your ID before I can sell you that Coke”?
Taxes have been imposed on tobacco products. The money raised pays for message campaigns that portray the true health impacts of tobacco. Those taxes also invest in ways to prevent and address the negative health outcomes resulting from smoking.
In 2013, there were no taxes on soda. Now, over 9 million people in the U.S. live with a soda tax. Collecting a penny an ounce for every pop sold in Maine would generate significant investments for public health. There are already many underfunded programs that create better health outcomes for low-income people. Many do that while paying local farmers and building Maine’s agricultural capacity.
What additional solutions could we come up with if we unleash the imagination of Maine’s food entrepreneurs with significant resources available to sell more healthy local food to everyone? What a boost for our economy and our collective spirit!
In this transition to a locally empowered food system, we will create jobs, make healthy food more affordable and make its production environmentally sustainable. This will create more access to good food and better health outcomes for people who currently run out of money to feed their families, either occasionally or often.
If the governor’s concern for the nutrition of poor people is sincere, then he should reverse the loss of food benefits from intentional restrictions implemented by his administration. In December 2010, the month before he was inaugurated, there were 125,028 active food stamp cases in Maine, serving 243,301 people. By December 2017, the caseload had dropped to 93,602 cases and 178,193 individuals. While some left SNAP because of increased income, tens of thousands of people who are no longer eligible still need assistance putting nutritious food on their tables.
Recent USDA food security research indicates Maine has had among the largest increases in hunger relative to other states. Cutting access to the SNAP benefits that a family needs is not an effective strategy for “supporting healthy food choices for our neediest people.”
When it comes to children, particularly in the context of U.S. economic inequality, poverty has a huge impact. Families that live on much lower incomes than their neighbors will be alienated from the society around them, unable to participate fully in the community. Children growing up in families made poor by a dysfunctional economy will face permanent disadvantages. This is magnified when the family is of color, has a minority culture or religion or does not have English as their primary language. Targeting those households with restrictions on food that everyone else has access to just makes them feel more marginalized and more likely to act like they don’t belong.
True leadership does not use its power to punish people who are already at the mercy of forces they cannot control. True leadership persuades us all to work together to make choices that elevate the common good. I hope Gov. LePage will work with us so that all eaters, not just those with limited food budgets, can benefit from a nutritional environment with more access to food that enhances everyone’s health.