I was shopping with a friend recently when the woman in front of us began pulling frozen pizzas, fake-juice drinks, junk food and convenience foods out of her cart. My friend and I exchanged knowing looks as she used the Link card - what we used to call food stamps - to pay for her mostly worthless haul.
If you pay attention, you can predict with a fair degree of accuracy which fellow shoppers are going to pay for their groceries themselves. In my unscientific observations, the unhealthier the food in the cart, the more likely it is that my tax dollars are going to be used to help pay for it.
But the interesting thing is that my eye-rolling friend is proudly liberal and not at all opposed to social programs. I teased him that he must be turning into a libertarian, but in fact the question of what kind of food support we should give to the poor is one that should interest every taxpayer of any political flavor.
Almost all of us want to provide food assistance to the deserving poor. Almost all of us want the poor to use this assistance to buy nutritious food. And while you cannot use your Link card to purchase things like cigarettes, liquor, or ready-to-eat prepared food, it's very hard to come up with practical rules that require the purchase of "nutritious" food.
Moreover, as I told my friend, some people just never learned to cook. We could give some people a cart full of free fresh produce but they would have little idea what to do with it.
This is not always a matter of income level, either. Another friend of mine lives in an area where probably not one neighbor receives any food assistance. She has been shocked at the poor diet many very well-educated, upper-class mothers around her are feeding their children. Toddlers should not be living on crackers shaped like fish, regardless of whether they are living in a subsidized apartment or a beautiful $300,000 home.
And anyway, there's not much agreement on what constitutes a healthy diet. Some families eschew refined grains in favor of whole-grain breads and pastas and don't eat any meat. Some families follow a paleo routine and don't eat any grains at all, but gobble up things like free-range turkey.
Some people believe all dairy should be eliminated, while others firmly believe you need several servings of milk every day. There isn't any agreement among the experts and we bounce from fad to fad. Gluten-free muffin, anyone?
And even people who make a very serious effort to serve good meals to their families are going to occasionally have a night when pizza shows up on the table. Not to mention the occasional bag of chips. Only a crazy person has a problem with that. The rest of us don't eat a perfect diet 100 percent of the time and we shouldn't expect it of others.
Page 2 of 2 - The Farm Bill, passed by the Senate and being considered by the House, would in its present form make deep cuts in food assistance.
I don't know what the answer is to the problem of many people not eating well, but I'm relatively certain that giving the needy even fewer food dollars is not it.
Those in favor of cutting food assistance like to claim that the poor are living it up on steaks. I personally haven't seen that at all. I've observed poor people blowing food money on junk more than on luxuries.
It might help if we taught our children how to cook - and I'm not talking about opening several cans and boxes and putting them together. I mean real cooking, the kind your great-grandmother did, only probably with less fat, salt, sugar and white flour.
It might help if we fed our children better school lunches instead of the unacceptable stuff most of them currently get.
It might help if we still taught home economics in school.
It might help if we got the junk food commercials off TV.
It might help if we offered cooking classes and nutrition counseling to people receiving Link cards (though in reality, an awful lot of middle- and upper-class people don't eat any better).
It might help if we had more time in our hectic schedules to devote to cooking.
Or, we could just go ahead and cut a few billion dollars in food assistance.
Yeah, that'll solve the problem nicely.
Michelle Teheux is editor of the Pekin Daily Times in Illinois. Email her at email@example.com.