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Apr 2013: Junk food on the taxpayers’ dime

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

There’s a lot of competition for the most hilariously misnamed bill or government program. But the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program takes the cake – or should I say the big, fat, sugar-filled, frosting-covered, waistline-expanding cake.

There’s nothing nutritional about the so-called nutrition program. Known as FoodShare in Wisconsin, you can’t use it to buy Marlboros or Jack Daniels. But you can use your entire government FoodShare check (it’s actually a debit card) to buy Doritos and Pepsi and Coke.

Dean Kaufert, the veteran state representative from Neenah, recently introduced a bill to no longer allow any of that. Predictably, the special interests that make or sell the stuff he was targeting got their claws into some of his colleagues, so he had to water it down to a version that would require recipients of SNAP money to use two-thirds of it to buy healthy stuff. They could still use the other third to buy junk food to their heart’s content – or, I guess, to its demise.

Still, people such as state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa are practically apoplectic.

Zamarripa claims the bill is an attempt to divide poor Wisconsinites from the middle class. And, during a recent meeting of the State Affairs Committee, she added this:

“It’s important to note that over 60% of our Wisconsinites that participate in FoodShare are white Wisconsinites . . . Thirty-seven percent of people who are participating in FoodShare are elderly and/or people living with disabilities. The average Wisconsinite participates in FoodShare. This is not somebody who looks underground or looks a little shady.”

Kaufert was offended by the remark, and should be. Either Zamarripa is a racist or – by suggesting proponents of limiting junk food might change their minds if they knew it would affect white people – is saying her opponents are.

After I called her office, she released a statement saying that “race, age and disability status of those using the food stamp program is not relevant to Assembly Bill 110. While it was certainly not the key point I raised, during the debate on this bill we have heard far too many misperceptions and stereotypes, and I was simply seeking to counter false perceptions about who utilizes food stamps in Wisconsin.”

In other words, she’s not apologizing – though she should.

Kaufert is no racist. Nor is he another version of Michael Bloomberg, the New York nanny who is trying to limit what everyone can eat and drink. Bloomberg was trying to tell people how to spend their own money, Kaufert pointed out. When taxpayer money is involved, it’s different – especially at a time when folks who are collecting SNAP benefits are often also receiving tax-subsidized medical care.

Kaufert says he would have preferred banning taxpayer subsidies of junk food altogether but had to compromise. The State Affairs Committee passed the current version, and it has now moved on to the full Assembly and the Senate. We’ll see what happens in the end, but as another supporter, state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, says, “The bottom line is, it’s logical.”

“We’re not going to say you can’t have a bag of Doritos with your hamburger. We’re not going to say you can’t have a soda with your dinner. We are just simply saying if you are going to take the money that we have worked so hard for as taxpayers and use it . . . there should be some limitations.”

Limitations on what we put in our mouths can be a good thing under the right circumstances, after all – although Zamarripa might want to think about limiting what comes out.