As you probably know the 2012 Farm Bill has food stamps on the block. I write a lot about food stamps because they are incredibly important – one in seven Americans uses them. One in four children is on food stamps. When you subsidize food for this many people, you functionally transform the larger food system. America, it turns out, subsidizes food just as many other nations do, because without it, people would be hungry. Although food represents one of the smaller budget items for many Americans, an increasing number can’t afford it. The transformation of our society into one dependent on subsidized food is enormous – and it mostly passes unnoticed.

One of the questions on the table right now is whether food stamp use should be restricted to healthier, better quality food. On the surface this SEEMS like a no-brainer – of course if the state is going to pay for food, the reasoning goes, it should be nutritious food. So many state legislators have proposed, and there is noise about this among federal legislators:

So far, lawmakers in several states, including Illinois, have unsuccessfully pushed bills to make soda, chips and candy ineligible for purchase with food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Others have suggested that the program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could be modified as part of the current farm bill negotiations in Congress.

Supporters say that adding restrictions could divert billions of SNAP dollars from junk food to healthier choices, thus saving billions more in obesity-related health care costs, which are predicted by the government to reach $550 billion by 2030.

But just how many taxpayer dollars go to purchase soda, chips, snack cakes and candy each year? The USDA says it has no idea.

The USDA does not track consumption by food stamp recipients, but we all know that like most Americans, those poor enough to qualify for food stamps eat a lot of junk. It makes people angry. The problem is that we like to be angry at poor people, and I’m not at all convinced that limiting food purchases by quality would make us less angry. Consider something I wrote about two years ago – the response that people have to those on food stamps who use those stamps to buy higher quality, higher priced organic or other food. They are just as mad about that. So the question becomes, what kind of food CAN the poor buy that will not subject them to scrutiny and judgement?

We see the problems of such a program in WIC, which is a dream program for people who want to prescribe what others should eat. You can’t buy soda or junk food on WIC. But neither can you buy many really valuable and healthy foods, or the foods of many cultures. What you get is a kind of neutral white-bread and juice model that is less healthy that what many of us will buy (we are eligible for WIC when we have younger foster children, but don’t usually use it because the food choices don’t match up with our own), but also precludes many of the higher cost, more nutritious items. I could get juice, but not fresh fruit, grocery store milk but not local or organic milk. The sizes, brands and costs are very specific, and mostly serve large industrial food – this is the model of “healthy’ that WIC offers. It is certainly healthier than the food many of the children in my care have been raised with, but it is also less healthy and offers less viable choice for us than we would really need.

I believe there is much that can be done in order to make better food more accessible to the American poor – from teaching nutrition and cooking in schools again for real, to community gardening to incentive programs like Michael Pollan’s proposal that food stamps should pay double at Farmer’s Markets. What I don’t think will work is a “healthy food only” policy that still mostly puts the enormous sums of money we pay on food stamps into big industrial “healthy” food. Nor do I think that further stigmatizing poverty is a wise strategy. We ultimately cannot expect the American poor to eat better than the American lower and middle class – changing food cultures is a deeper project that has to go across class lines.

What do you think?