Good news: USDA expanding food stamps to even more farmers markets

Once upon a time, I believe the case for food stamps was centered on the argument that, as decent human beings, we have a social obligation to come together and offer a lifeline to the absolute poorest among us and ensure that nobody is going hungry — at least while people get back on their feet after unemployment or sudden calamity. Agree or disagree with that argument, the case for food stamps certainly seems to have… er… evolved:

When it comes to giving more people access to fresh, healthy food, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has turned a great deal of its focus in recent years toward farmers markets. And, more specifically, opening farmers markets up to Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) or “food stamp” users.

In fact, the agency reports, spending at farmers markets under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has already jumped by 400 percent since 2008 — and that’s with less than a quarter of the country’s 7,000 markets participating in the program.

“That’s a huge transformation in the farmers market world, in terms of people being able to feel like they’re invited to the party,” USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in a phone interview.

Expanding SNAP at farmers markets is part of the agency’s broader approach to increasing healthy food access for low-income communities that lack adequate grocery stores and public transportation — areas known (if sometimes controversially so) as food deserts. So when this year’s budget talks came around, the USDA requested $4 million to expand the effort. (Cost is a major reason why more farmers markets don’t already participate: SNAP benefits are redeemed through the EBT system, which relies on wireless technology, and that doesn’t come free.)

Wow. We are more than $15 trillion in debt, but the Department of Agriculture is dishing out taxpayer money to subsidize costly transactions so that more people will feel invited to the health-food party. The USDA  is apparently unfamiliar with the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Not only does the federal government have no business spending other people’s money to try and influence people’s food and health choices, but doing so in no way guarantees that people actually will eat more healthfully — I wonder if they’ve given any thought at all to the opportunity costs or neighborhood effects that could come from their efforts to engineer the perfect crunchy society.

Food stamp participation is at an all-time high, but, according to USDA Secretary Vilsack, food stamps are among ‘the most direct economic stimulus you can get’ and create jobs and wealth. So, riddle me this, Mr. Secretary: Why don’t we just put everybody on food stamps? While we’re at it, why don’t we get rid of all of our ATMs and airport kiosks? We’ll be the richest country, evah! Or something.

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