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BOVARD: Obama’s obesity epidemic

More food stamps mean fatter kids

- - Monday, December 2, 2013

Federal food programs are now feeding more than 100 million Americans. The number of recipients has soared in recent years, thanks in part to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign pledge to abolish childhood hunger by 2015. The food-aid explosion is worsening the nation's obesity epidemic, though, and making a mockery of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign.

The Obama administration is aggressively expanding the largest federal food program, bankrolling food-stamp recruiting drives and swaying states to waive asset and income limits for applicants. The result is a boost in enrollment to almost 48 million.

Numerous studies going back to the 1970s have linked food stamps to poor eating habits. Baruch College professor Diane Gibson estimated that participation in the food-stamp program for five years boosted the odds of young girls being overweight by 43 percent. Professor Charles Baum, writing in the Southern Economic Journal, estimated that food-stamp recipients are far more likely to be obese than eligible nonrecipients and warned that "chronic food-stamp receipt may promote lifestyle changes that lead to weight gain."

The Obama administration portrays food stamps as a nutrition program while blocking reforms to exclude purchases of the worst kinds of junk food. The administration did not support an amendment to the farm bill by Rep. Tom Marino, Pennsylvania Republican, to compel the U.S. Department of Agriculuture to disclose how recipients spend their food stamps. Most food stamps are redeemed at large grocery chains or big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, which could easily provide itemized receipts for all food-stamp purchases. The Obama administration is also fighting a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from The Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, seeking food-stamp expenditure data. The administration apparently feels entitled to treat such information as a "state secret."

In 2010, President Obama swayed Congress to enact the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Thanks to this law, far more free breakfasts and lunches are being given to schoolchildren, regardless of their family's income levels.

While politicians tout such programs to prove their benevolence, school meals have long subverted children's health. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has lambasted the federal school lunch program for 35 years for its high fat and poor nutrient content. A University of Michigan study published in 2010 found that students who regularly eat school lunches are 29 percent more likely to be overweight, and that consumption of school lunches is the strongest single predictor of childhood obesity.

School breakfasts have long been renowned for doughnuts, chocolate milk and other sugar bombs. Parents in Houston, Las Vegas and elsewhere have been outraged that there is no opt-out provision to block schools from giving kids a second breakfast after their child has been fed at home. New York City in 2012 suspended expansion of its Breakfast in the Classrooms after discovering that 20 percent of pupils were eating two breakfasts — one at home and another at school.

The most damning evidence comes from Uncle Sam. The Department of Agriculture's 2012 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study found that the typical school breakfast included almost the entire maximum recommended daily intake for sugar and fat. The number of calories from solid fats and added sugars in the average elementary-school lunch "was 15 percent above the maximum recommended for the entire day." Any young child who ate both a school breakfast and lunch would likely far exceed the recommended daily thresholds for sugar — even before consuming any snacks or dinner.

Congress has enacted numerous laws commanding the Agriculture Department and schools to serve healthier meals, most recently in 2010. As in the past, though, such reforms are policy wonks' pipe dreams. The GAO reported in June that the latest federal lunch standards are "making it difficult for some schools to meet minimum calorie requirements for lunches without adding items, such as gelatin, that generally do not improve the nutritional quality of lunches." In almost half the districts the GAO visited, schools added "pudding to certain high-school menus to bring the menus into compliance with the calorie minimum." Such menus help explain why the rate of diabetes and prediabetes has more than doubled among American teenagers since 1999.

The Obama administration may be relying on a headcount measure of benevolence, presuming that the more people the government feeds, the better America becomes. However, this numbers game is having catastrophic public health consequences.

A commentary last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that "seven times as many [low-income] children are obese as are underweight." The National Survey of Children's Health, conducted in 2011-12, revealed that children in lower-income families were more than twice as likely to be overweight or obese as children from families in higher-income families. In Maine, Georgia, Kentucky, North Dakota, Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana, more than half of the children from low-income families are obese. In Vermont and Massachusetts, children from low-income households are more than three times as likely to be obese than kids for higher-income homes, as The Washington Post recently reported.

Mr. Obama certainly has no intent to worsen the obesity epidemic, yet he has championed the expansion of federal programs that undermine tens of millions of Americans' diets. Unfortunately, politicians can reap applause for fighting hunger regardless of the collateral damage that food programs inflict. Children may one day recognize those free school breakfasts and lunches as the worst bargain they ever received.

James Bovard is author of "Public Policy Hooligan" (Sixth Street Books, 2012).