Government efforts to feed the hungry were born, like many government programs, in the Great Depression, and the birth was stimulated not so much by hunger itself as by government attempts to shore up farm prices. To keep prices at a level that would allow farmers to remain on their land, the government bought great quantities of grain, milk, and livestock.
The crops were plowed under, the milk poured down drains, and the livestock slaughtered and buried instead of processing the meat. In 1933 alone, the government bought and destroyed the meat of six million hogs. All this happened at a time when malnutrition and what government bureaucrats called “inanition” (an obscure word for starvation) were ravaging the country.
The resulting political outcry against the waste of perfectly good food in a time of great need gave birth to the program we know today in shorthand as “commodities,” where foodstuffs bought to support prices are distributed free to hungry people. In modern times, we also have the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
From the Great Depression until 2014, farm subsidies and food programs for the hungry were linked in the law, which tended to make them both politically bulletproof. The Republican Congress broke that link last year, making it possible to subsidize agribusiness without feeding the hungry.
The states, charged with administering SNAP and WIC, have been taking steps to make sure that eating on the government’s dime becomes even more unpleasant than it has been.
Kansas started the wave of restrictions with rules that ban poor people from using Kansas Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cards in bars and casinos (understandable), but also in lingerie stores and on cruise ships (less understandable in landlocked Kansas). TANF cards still work in gun stores, though.
The Republican legislature in Wisconsin, with the approval of GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker, has taken on the cause in a manner that must leave “cheeseheads” scratching their heads.
The list of “disallowed” foods, which you can view here, includes the following:
Cranberry sauce and pie filling
Pork and beans
Frozen veggies that come in packages featuring pasta, nuts, rice, cheese, or meats
French fries and hash browns
Sharp cheddar cheese, Swiss, and fresh mozzarella, shredded and sliced cheeses (except American cheese of course), cheese food, spreads, and products. Even kosher cheese is banned unless you apply to get a specific check for it to identify who the poor Jewish people are. There is no mention of halal cheese, so Jewish people might be able to follow their rules by pretending to be Muslims, who get halal rules from the same Scripture as kosher rules.
Canned peas and green beans
Albacore tuna, red salmon, and fish fillets
Bagels, pita bread, English muffins
White rice and wild rice
Almond, rice, goat, and soy milk.
Brown eggs and any eggs produced by cage-free or free range chickens
Several kinds of infant food
Anything in bulk
Anything organic or natural
Not to be outdone, Missouri GOP Rep. Rick Brattin has introduced a bill to ban using food stamps for steak or seafood. Brattin did indicate he could tolerate an amendment to allow poor people to buy canned tuna and fish sticks.
If you are thinking fish sticks are not as nutritious as seafood generally, compare the Wisconsin “disallowed” foods to this list of things you can purchase with government aid and still be within federal guidelines:
Mixes for alcoholic beverages
A political debate has raged for years about whether poor people should be allowed to purchase “unhealthy” foods with government dollars, a debate so far won by lobbyists for producers of unhealthy foods. In Wisconsin, the concern appears to be that healthy foods are more expensive and so the poor should eat like they are poor.
Most Indians living in their homelands still have access to the basic food groups: commod cheese and the simple ingredients for fry bread. But, of course, if you are living on a Kansas rez—Sac and Fox, Iowa, Kickapoo or Potawatomi—you will have to stay off those cruise ships.