Drawing the line with food stamps

Posted Nov. 14, 2008, at 9:13 p.m.

Admit it. We’re all tempted occasionally to peek into someone else’s grocery basket. And most of us, at one time or another, have stood in line, stared straight ahead and prayed that no one looked into our own.

It is at the grocery store that we mingle with strangers and neighbors all while tending to some of our most personal and intimate needs and desires — in full public view.

Food, hygiene items, medicine, sexual aids and reading material. It’s all tossed into our cart for all to see as we shop row by row.

It is there that the newly divorced middle-aged mom inevitably runs into her son’s social studies teacher just after having slipped a package of condoms into her cart; or where the overweight man runs into his Weight Watcher’s support coach with a gallon of “full-fat” ice cream in his basket.

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The scenarios of embarrassment are endless and have been reenacted on nearly every sit-com ever aired.

When I was a teenager I worked after school and on weekends as a bagger at the town’s grocery store. It’s true that after a while you don’t really see what you’re packing into those bags. Baggers are much more concerned about even weight distribution than the actual items being purchased.

But back in those days one thing was always obvious, and that was who used food stamps. Food stamp users, you see, slowed things down. There were coupons in various monetary increments, each having to be torn out of the food stamp coupon book. There were things that could be purchased with the stamps and things that couldn’t, so certain items often would have to be set aside and paid for separately with cash. That took extra time.

Customers and employees alike often rolled their eyes at the delay. The person frantically tearing out those coupons as the line grew longer behind her most certainly heard the audible sighs of those who were waiting.

I thought about that this week when I first read about Dr. Jonathan Shenkin’s idea to eliminate soda pop from the list of items that could be purchased with food stamps.

Shenkin is a pediatric dentist in Bangor and last month the American Dental Association at its annual meeting in San Antonio endorsed a resolution in support of banning the use of food stamps to purchase soda and other sugary drinks.

There are about 178,000 Maine households that participate in the food stamp program. The list is pretty short of the items that may not be purchased; it includes paper products, such as toilet paper and tampons, alcohol and tobacco.

There is no limit on soda, chips, candy or other “junk food” items.

This rightfully disturbs a lot of people, including Shenkin, who notes the number of children he sees in his practice whose teeth are rotting out of their heads in part due to the enormous amount of soda they drink.

It certainly is reasonable to argue that a public assistance program such as the federally funded food stamp program be limited to nutritious foods. It is a “supplemental program” after all, and one would hope that a mom or dad trying to feed their family would opt to use that assistance for healthful food and reserve the occasional sugary treat for when they had a little extra cash on hand.

It certainly wouldn’t offend me if Maine became the first state to prohibit food stamp recipients from using those funds to purchase soda pop.

But where do we draw the line?

Should we also prohibit them from purchasing potato chips? Perhaps cereals that contained more than 10 percent sugar? Marshmallows have absolutely no nutritional value.

And drinking too much soda is not limited to people on food stamps.

I have a friend who would be considered by most to be middle class. When his son was a teenager his dentist had told him, “Your son’s teeth are rotting. How much soda does he drink?”

This middle-class kid drank a liter or two of Mountain Dew each day.

Shenkin doesn’t have a bad point, but take a moment to think about it.

When you are making your judgment — and it’s OK for you to make it because you are a taxpayer — don’t forget what’s in your own cart.

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