Last week Raj Patel wrote – intelligently, of course, as he does – that passing the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill must not come down to a choice between feeding children and feeding families. A current version of the bill that has been passed by the Senate plans to fund an improved (healthier) school meal program in part by cutting $2 billion in funding for SNAP –the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program otherwise known as food stamps.
Food stamps, of course, are often the last line of defense for Americans that don’t have consistent access to sufficiently nutritious food (according to the USDA there were over 50 million of them, including more than 17 million children, in 2009). Patel argues that the Government should expand both SNAP and school meal programs, and that robbing a family’s dinner to pay for a child’s lunch is deeply misguided economic and social policy:
“People living with hunger and food insecurity are five times more likely than average to harbor thoughts of suicide or engage in self-destructive behavior. Treat that behavior and factor the lost productivity due to anxiety, depression, and suicide related to hunger, and the bill came to $31.2 billion in 2005. If the food stamp program shrinks, these costs will rise. Even if children come home from school well-fed—which, I say again, absolutely needs to happen—they will not be sheltered from the horrors that hunger inflicts on those who care for them after the school bell rings.”
He’s absolutely right. You can’t help the kids by hurting their parents. And to act as if it has all come down to this, that this is the tough choice we must now make, is ludicrous. The proposed spending increase on school meal programs amounts to $4.5 billion over ten years. You’re telling me that the only way to pay for that is to cut $2 billion from food stamps? You’ve got to be kidding.
One could always cut defense spending, of course, but there’s another way to pay for this bill, one that’s been sitting right in front of us for a while: a federal penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Take this soda tax calculator out for a spin. In 2011 New York state could contribute over $945 million on its own. California: over $1.8 billion. You can see how quickly this adds up. A few weeks ago the Bipartisan Policy Center released a deficit reduction proposal that estimates direct revenue (not including reduced healthcare costs) from a penny-per-ounce federal soda tax at $156 billion between 2012 and 2018. According to those numbers a federal tax could fund the $4.5 billion Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill in a little over two months.
Taxing soda to fund healthier school meals benefits kids twice-over. Some might argue that a tax imposes undue hardship on low-income families (many of whom receive food stamps) who rely on soda for cheap calories. But what’s worse: discouraging food stamp dollars from being spent on soda, or slashing them outright?
We better figure it out quickly, because the time to pass a saner bill before the new Congress steps in is running out.
(Photo Credit: ack via Flickr)