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Congress members live on food stamps for one week to get firsthand perspective

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By Elizabeth Kucinich

Courtesy of MCT Campus

Two carrots, half a head of lettuce, broccoli and a partly eaten loaf of bread. These were just a few of the items Rep. Jan Schakowsky stuffed into her suitcase she took on her flight from her home district in Illinois to her D.C. office.

Rep. Schakowsky and 11 other Democratic members of Congress just finished a weeklong food stamp challenge to give them a firsthand perspective on what it’s like to live on a limited food budget. The participating members of Congress couldn’t spend more than $4.50 a day on food _ so eating out in D.C. was not an option for Rep. Schakowsky. She also felt very limited in the grocery store.

I have no doubt that, after this week, these members of Congress have a better understanding of the challenges Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients face.

But I want to point out a few ways members of Congress can actually help SNAP recipients get more out of their food stamps and fight chronic disease at the same time.

The secret is to encourage recipients to fill up the grocery cart with healthful staples like beans, vegetables, and grains, and to leave items like eggs and beef on the shelves. Meat and other animal products are not needed in the diet, and they actually have been shown to cause chronic diseases. We can get complete nutrition and adequate calories on a food stamp budget eating a varied meal plan of fresh and shelf-stable fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. And this diet actually fights the diseases that are causing our nation’s health care bill to skyrocket.

The SNAP program should be restructured so that only the “Healthy Basics” can be purchased with SNAP dollars. This would address the problem of food deserts, urban or rural areas in which healthy food is simply not available. If SNAP spending was limited to foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes, grocers would have a financial incentive to stock those foods, instead of the cheap, processed foods that have longer shelf lives.

Scientific studies reveal that people who eat more plant foods and fewer meaty, cheesy meals are much healthier. Vegetarians have significantly lower blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index, blood sugar and triglycerides, compared with nonvegetarians, according to a recent study published in Diabetes Care.

Federal nutrition guidance emphasizes healthful vegetables, fruits and whole grains to help fight obesity and other health problems. But federal direct and indirect subsidies still favor meat and dairy products, despite the abundant scientific evidence showing that these foods contribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancer, among other health problems.

Government programs subsidize feed grains for livestock, buy up hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cheese and meat and dump it in school meal programs, cover much of the cost of environmental clean-up related to livestock feeding operations, and put soda and fatty cheese on the same financial footing as healthy vegetables and fruits in the SNAP program.

This encourages the intake of animal fat, cholesterol, and excessive calories and puts healthier choices _ the vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes that provide fiber and important vitamins at a comparative disadvantage.

I propose that the government slash subsidies for unhealthful foods like cheddar and chicken nuggets and put healthful foods like pinto beans and pears on a pedestal.

If the government would reform the SNAP program and encourage people to purchase healthful foods like fruits and vegetables, it would make it easier to eat healthfully on such a tight budget, and it could also help solve our nation’s health care crisis.

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