The state's top health official is going to Washington to convince federal officials that a candy bar does not deserve the same legal status as cauliflower.
Will Humble wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose nutrition standards on what can be purchased with food stamps. Humble said it makes no sense for the government to subsidize the purchase of unhealthy food.
Barbara Ruhs, the registered in-house dietician for Basha's markets, said what Humble wants to do makes a lot of sense. She said the move would do more than restrict how families in need can spend the funds they receive under what is more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"This has the potential to really put a big fire under the food industry to modify their products so they are healthier," Ruhs said. And that, she said, will benefit not just food stamp recipients but all shoppers.
Humble said the problem is that the program was designed in the days when people weren't getting enough to eat.
"Right now, under the SNAP program, a person receiving benefits can get pretty much anything that's in that grocery store," he said. About the only things off limits are alcoholic beverages, tobacco, household supplies, pet food, vitamins and foods that are either hot or designed to be eaten in the store.
That means potato chips are as acceptable as pears.
"That's got to stop," he said.
Humble will make his case in person this week to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees the program, as well as Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Ultimately, he said, Congress will have to approve such a massive change in the system. But Humble said he believes the policymakers will see the wisdom of making that change.
"It will really drive consumer choices toward healthier foods," he said. "Unless the food is on a SNAP-approved list, it's less likely to be purchased by mom in the aisle."
The push is similar to what Humble was able to get adopted earlier this month in the WIC program, which provides food vouchers for pregnant women and new moms.
But the food stamp program is much bigger, with anyone below 133 percent of the federal poverty level eligible to get assistance. That translates out to $24,360 a year for a family of three. At last count, there were more than 400,000 Arizona families getting such aid, though Humble said he believes far more actually qualify.
The big question that remains is exactly where to draw the line.
For example, are granola bars a health food or simply glorified candy bars? And what of other snacks?
Humble said he would leave that for nutritionists. But Ruhs said there are ways to decide what falls on each side.
"Certainly, the sugar-sweetened beverages would be a good place to start," she said. And Ruhs said she also would forbid the purchase of fried foods or those with trans fats.
And everything in between?
Ruhs said one way of determining nutrition would be if an item has at least 10 percent of four essential nutrients like calcium, iron or vitamins.
"If it doesn't have any of those, then they probably should not be included as a healthy food," she said.
Humble could get a fight.
A 2007 report by the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service concluded that restricting the purchase of "unhealthful" items with food stamps is not a promising strategy for getting people to eat better. It said people will just buy the items they want with cash.
Anyway, the report said, given the "ingenuity of the food industry," what had been a prohibited candy bar can be "adapted into a chocolate 'granola bar.'"
"The consumer would still make the decision to choose either more healthful foods, such as fruits and vegetables, or foods and beverages that, although not restricted, are essentially similar to the prohibited items," the report says.
Ruhs said nutrition education does have to be a key component of any program designed to help people. But she said that people who are on public assistance programs "have bigger fish to fry" and are not necessarily reading the latest news about what foods are healthy and what foods are not.
"When the default in our country is you're pretty much surrounded by unhealthy choices, we need to set some guardrails on what is included," Ruhs said. And while that's not "education" in the traditional sense, she said it becomes "subliminal education" where people have to start thinking about why they're being allowed to purchase whole wheat bread and not white bread.
Humble said he's expecting a fight.
"You can imagine that there's food processors out there that would listen to my discussion right here and just cringe at the idea of public health starting to put some nutritional criteria in the food stamp program," he said. "There's going to be push-back."
And those interests, Humble said, will have influence in Congress, where the final decisions will have to be made.
But Ruhs said the opposition from the industry might not be as pitched as Humble fears.
She said companies ranging from Kraft and ConAgra to Frito-Lay already have put labels on the packages of some of their items citing why these are healthier than some other choices.
"The industry is seeing that when you make healthier foods, you actually tend to improve your profits," Ruhs said.
There is a precedent for what Humble wants to do, but not a promising one: In 2004, the Department of Agriculture turned down a request by the state of Minnesota to bar food stamp recipients in its state from purchasing candy and sugared sodas. In a rejection letter, the agency's regional administrator said such a limit would cause "confusion and embarrassment" for recipients who would reach the register only to have their purchases denied.