We don’t agree with much of what Gov. Paul LePage has to say on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, an essential piece of public assistance that ensures millions of Americans do not go hungry.

But he is absolutely right on one of the program’s central hypocrisies — it’s multibillion-dollar subsidy to the junk-food industry.

“The Obama administration goes to great lengths to police the menus of K-12 cafeterias, but looks the other way as billions of taxpayer dollars finance a steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew,” the governor wrote last summer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP.

Five cents out of every SNAP dollar is spent on soda, with another 10 cents going to other sweetened beverages, such as energy drinks or fruit juice, according to a new study from the USDA itself.

Banning the use of food stamps on these beverages, as LePage wants and the USDA has so far resisted, is a logical first step in changing federal policy that is fighting against itself even as it fights the obesity epidemic.

However, if the ban is about public health and not the public shaming of the poor, it must be done alongside efforts to reduce the overall consumption of sweetened beverages, which are a problem for SNAP participants and non-participants alike, and contribute not only to obesity but to a wide range of health problems costing the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

The goal should be reducing that use across the board, using the kind of campaign that has already led to a large reduction in the amount of soda consumed among the population as a whole, extending it to all sorts of sweetened beverages, and specifically into the low-income communities that on average consume junk food at a higher rate.

The USDA should also continue to push for a more rational food policy, one that does not so heavily subsidize the soy and corn that are used as filler in so many unhealthy processed foods. If spending billions of SNAP funds on soda is bad policy, so is funneling billions to farmers whose crops become high-fructose corn syrup.

Instituting a ban as part of a more holistic approach to food policy would make it decidely more effective, and separate it from the more punitive food stamp measures forwarded by officials like LePage who have sought to cut the rolls even as hunger spreads, stressing schools and food banks.

Perhaps it is this existential argument over food stamps that has the Obama administration balking at a ban, as a reflex for defending the program as a whole. Otherwise, its arguments don’t make much sense.

Both of the USDA’s main points against a ban — that it would be difficult to administer and that it is punitive toward the poor — are proved wrong by other federal programs, such as school lunch and Women, Infants and Children, both of which have clear restrictions and strict guidelines on nutrition.

No, banning food stamps from being used on junk food isn’t an attack on the poor, but part of an antidote to food policies that are making us sick.

filed under: