Andy Harris plays doctor to justify food stamp cuts

Andy Harris, the anesthesiologist and congressman from Maryland who voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and spoke out against masking and vaccination mandates during the pandemic, now wants to save children from low-income households. income from sugary soft drinks.

Harris, the seven-term Republican who chairs a House agriculture subcommittee, thinks those enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should not be allowed to use food stamps to buy drinks sweet.

It’s an old complaint — that SNAP subsidizes the purchase of unhealthy food and drink — and Harris revived it last week with an essay for

“Let’s be clear,” Harris wrote, “we are not asking that unhealthy foods be banned by the federal government; we believe in free markets. But channeling billions of dollars into subsidizing unhealthy food or drink for children, and therefore increasing the risk of diabetes, is not an example of the freedom we all hold dear, nor a responsible use of taxpayers’ money.

Good to know Dr. Harris cares. This is the same medical professional who ran for office against the ACA and joined other House Republicans in frequently voting to repeal Obamacare. Had they succeeded, thousands of Marylanders — including at least 70,000 in the Harris District — would have been cut off from affordable health insurance provided by law.

Harris was also an outspoken vaccine skeptic and critic of masking as the coronavirus claimed the lives of more than 1.1 million Americans.

He sounds like a classic libertarian, praising the free market and demanding that government stay out of our personal decisions. Except Harris, who is staunchly anti-abortion, wants the government to interfere in women’s deeply personal choices, and now he wants to tell workers who receive SNAP benefits that they cannot purchase Mountain Dew with food stamps.

“We hope,” Harris wrote, “that we can all agree on a simple, bipartisan solution that will save children’s lives: no SNAP funding for sugary drinks and non-nutritious foods.”

It is undeniable that the increase in obesity, especially in children, is largely caused by the consumption of unhealthy foods, starting with drinks rich in sugar.

But it’s a national problem, not limited to people whose low income makes them eligible for a government program.

A decade ago, when the Department of Agriculture investigated the SNAP purchases of food stamp recipients, it found that 9.3% of their grocery budgets were spent on sugary drinks. Meanwhile, households that did not receive food stamps spent about 7.1% of their budget on sugary drinks.

So if health is the concern, logic says Harris should support a ban on high-sugar drinks for everyone.

“If they want to ban soda because they think it’s bad for people, then that’s what they have to do,” says Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. “But we shouldn’t say to low-income people, who get by on an average of $6 a person a day – that’s what the SNAP benefit is now – ‘You get such a meager benefit and oh, au Don’t spend it on it.

“It’s micromanagement and stigmatization in the extreme. And we often hear that from the same congressmen who, at every turn, are trying to take health care away from low-income people, (who) want to cut Medicaid, want to cut Medicare, want to cut Obamacare.

Wilson says there are other restrictions on food stamp purchases that he considers outdated.

“You can only buy food, so you can’t buy diapers,” he says. “You can’t buy menstrual products. You also cannot buy aspirin or cold medicine. We still operate in many ways like it was in 1960. You can buy a frozen chicken at the grocery store, but you can’t buy a rotisserie chicken. You can buy frozen pizza, but you can’t buy a slice of pizza. … If it’s your daughter’s birthday party, you can buy a birthday cake. Maybe Andy Harris wants to deny them that too.

One solution to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks is to tax them at a higher rate. Municipalities that did so saw an almost immediate drop in sales of sugary drinks. In Philadelphia, for example, an analysis of scanner data showed a 38% drop in one year after a 1.5 cent per ounce tax took effect.

Additionally, there was a measurable shift away from sugary drinks. A Harvard study looked at the habits of thousands of people over the 13-year period ending in 2016. Published in 2020, the study showed a significant decrease in the consumption of sugary drinks by adults and children.

I realize this goes against the ridiculous Republican agenda to cut SNAP benefits at a time when food prices have risen, but if Dr. Harris is serious about improving health outcomes, he should support an increase in food stamps. “Most studies will show you that if you give people more money, they buy healthier foods because that’s what they can afford,” Wilson says.

He cites the Maryland Market Money program as an example. Funded by public and private donations, it provides dollar-for-dollar consideration to food stamp recipients when they purchase SNAP-eligible products (fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, baked goods) at one of the 46 farmers. markets and farms across the state.

In other words, it’s an incentive that rewards people for buying healthier foods instead of punishing and stigmatizing them for buying the wrong things.

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