Is there any human impulse stronger than the urge to tell others what not to eat?

Fast food, red meat, white bread, trans fats, sugary cereals, processed foods, salty snacks, fried anything, refined grains, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, sodium, Snickers bars. We’re surrounded by unhealthy choices and by people who would like to legislate them away.

The latest victims of these well-intentioned busybodies are low-income Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, still known to most everyone as food stamps.

Like everyone else, SNAP recipients drink too much soda and eat too many potato chips and Oreos. The fact that those unhealthy purchases are made with public assistance rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and their disdain has gone beyond rolling their eyes in the grocery checkout line. They want the SNAP program to stop paying for soda, cookies and other treats.

The argument is that taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the purchase of non-nutritional foods. Soda and candy lead to obesity, which leads to diabetes, heart disease and other ailments that in turn lead to higher health care costs. Well, yes, but low-income people aren’t the only ones driving up those costs.

The SNAP program doesn’t cover everything. You can’t use it to buy alcohol, cosmetics, pet food, paper goods, soaps or household supplies. Most food items, however, are covered, even if they’re nutritionally suspect. In several states, efforts are afoot to restrict the purchase of unhealthy food items, which would require a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

No. 1 on the hit list is soda. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food policy watchdog group, has said SNAP users spend $4 billion per year on soda.

The National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, recently sent representatives to shareholder meetings of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola to challenge company officials for lobbying to protect the flow of sugary beverages to food stamp recipients.

Two years ago, the USDA rejected New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s request for a waiver to ban soda from the list of SNAP-eligible items.

Other proposals are far broader. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is targeting high-fat, high-calorie and high-sodium items. “We want to lift those families up and help them know what good nutrition is,” she says. In Illinois, a bill that went nowhere in 2011 would have sought a waiver to ban carbonated soft drinks, snack cakes, candies, chewing gum and “fried, high-fat chips” — apparently sparing the Baked Lays.

The USDA hasn’t been particularly receptive to such requests. Hundreds of thousands of products — with thousands more coming on the market every year — would have to be classified eligible or not. Advocates seem to think this all could be accomplished through the miracle of bar codes, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

What’s junk food, and what isn’t? Would that determination be made based on what’s in the item, or what’s not? Those Technicolor-ed sugar bombs marketed as children’s cereals are fortified with a full day’s supply of vitamins. Most juice boxes are little more than sugar water but hey, they’re fat-free. Diet soda has zero calories, but it also contains aspartame, sodium nitrite and artificial colors.

Should poor kids be required to eat raisin bran instead of Cap’n Crunch? Margarine instead of butter? Are those Baked Lays chips OK or not? What about caffeine, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup?

More to the point: Why should the government dictate the dietary choices of SNAP recipients when the rest of us are free to sling Little Debbies and Mountain Dew into our carts? What we’re hearing is that it’s wrong to buy Fritos on the taxpayers’ dime.

Moderation, people. A 2002 survey of food stamp purchases found that recipients were “no more likely to consume soft drinks than are higher-income individuals and are less likely to consume sweets and salty snacks.” A 2005 USDA analysis found that “vegetables, fruits, grain products, meat and meat alternatives account for nearly three quarters of the money value of food used by food stamp households.”

So lighten up, already. We’re all for reducing obesity, reining in health care costs and prudent spending of taxpayer dollars. But we don’t think the government needs to micromanage the grocery shopping habits of its citizens.

Instead of worrying about our neighbors’ waistlines, we should turn our attention to the ever-expanding SNAP program. More than 47 million people get food stamps, up from 17 million in 2000. That’s far more than can be blamed on the recession and slow recovery. Because of relaxed eligibility standards, millions of people are getting food stamps who wouldn’t have qualified in the past. Congress is struggling to get its arms around the program, which accounts for 80 percent of spending under the farm bill.

If we’re serious about cutting taxpayer spending on groceries, we should stop handing out food stamps so generously, instead of minding what goes into each other’s carts.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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