Essay: The Badger State's Junk Food Debate

Jun 6, 2013

Lake Effect essayist Young Kim say coercing food stamp recipients to buy only “healthy food” is the wrong way to go about it.

Some healthy foods, some not-so healthy foods...
Credit Bill Branson

Assembly Bill 110 is wending through the Wisconsin State Legislature and, given the political realities in our state, it will probably pass. The bill requires food stamp recipients to spend at least two-thirds of their benefits on “healthy” foods such as bread, milk, and vegetables.

The bill is backed by good intentions. Potato chips, sodas, and other nutritionally empty convenience foods are everywhere these days, and the last people who should be eating them are poor people who don’t have health insurance or regular medical checkups.

But my ten years of trying to get more veggies into Milwaukee stomachs tells me that this bill is flawed. The food retail system in our inner city isn’t set up to deliver the goods. This bill is the equivalent of slapping a band-aid on skin cancer.

Corner convenience stores are the main food source for Milwaukee’s poor. Some stores do have fruits and vegetables but they’re more expensive and of poorer quality, mainly because our nation’s food distribution system is not geared to serve mom-and-pop corner stores. Being poor means going without time saving conveniences that many of us take for granted. Not having a car puts the better stocked and more affordable suburban grocers out of reach. Go into any Milwaukee convenience store and try to make a salad out of what you find there. You simply can’t.

Leveling the food field is an enormous puzzle. But Milwaukee already has many of the pieces. Dozens of agencies like mine are going at it from an array of angles, like urban gardens and peri-urban farms designed to supply the city with affordable produce, or linking urban vegetable production with jobs to supply veggies to corner stores. Just last year, our city’s Office of Environmental Sustainability created the HOME GR/OWN concept and pitched it to the Bloomber g Philanthropies’ Mayors’ Challenge. Competing with over 300 cities, Milwaukee came just shy of winning. But the idea of “urban homesteading” to transform foreclosed properties into food production lots and aggr egating veggies with a “food hub” to take advantage of the economies of scale holds so much promise for community transformation.

But the most troubling aspect of the bill is the introduction of a coercive element to a select part of our population. As I learned when my own daughter turned two, coercion around food is not a strategy for long term success. I’d like to live in a Milwaukee where people take responsibility for their health, where they eat vegetables not because they’re forced to, but because they want to. That’s what real change looks like. And everywhere I look in Milwaukee diets are changing. Recently the Fondy Market had to add a “New Soul” category to its Collard Greens cooking contest to accommodate all of the entries that were vegetarian and salt free.

I want a Milwaukee where people who make poor dietary choices have to live with the consequences. But before we reach that level of personal responsibility, people need exactly that – choices. Apples and broccoli have to be right next to candy and soda. As things stand now, healthy eating in the inner city won’t happen on a large scale if it’s too much of a pain in the neck.

Wisconsinites value frugality and want tax dollars used wisely, and stories of food stamps being spent on sodas fly in the face of these values. But even supporters of this bill admit that they don’t have any data that shows what percentage of food stamps are spent on junk food. Their evidence is purely anecdotal. But we do know that our federal government spends 20 billion dollars each year to prop up the prices of commodity crops like corn and soybeans – a practice that hides the real cost of food and makes it possible to sell a 390-calorie double cheeseburger for a dollar and still make a profit. That is what Wisconsin should be upset about.

If the bill passes, Wisconsin will apply to the USDA for a waiver to enact these changes to this federal program. History says this waiver won’t be approved. Minnesota tried in 2004 and New York City in 2010. Both times the requests were denied because “healthy food” is impossible to define.

And we’ll be back where we started, only worse. This food stamp bill is a wedge that will only widen the Gulf of Misunderstanding between the haves and have-nots. It’s well-intentioned but based on myths. It’s help that does not help, and anyone that’s tried to feed a family off of food stamps will see that in an instant. What saddens me the most is how much the people on each side of this gulf don’t know each other. It’s time to start a new conversation.

Young Kim is the executive director of the Fondy Food Center, and urban foodie columnist at