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Nikki Haley hates the poor almost as much as she loves pre-election political pandering. With her political reputation stained by general incompetence and the inability to protect the social security numbers of millions of South Carolinians, the governor is looking for an easy way to reinforce her conservative bonafides. What better way to do this than by beating the drum against everyone's least favorite group - the starving poor?

This week, she's proposing changes to the way South Carolina feeds its poor. Specifically, she's talking about applying for a federal waiver in order to "tinker" with the SNAP program. Her plan? Make sure that fat, rotten poor people stop buying Pringles and candy bars.

“That $1 billion no longer will go to candy and chocolate and sodas and chips,” Haley said. “It’ll be going to apples and oranges and things that are healthy.”
Nikki Haley and her husband, a man who clearly hates candy.
The extent of her proposed changes are yet to be known, but if her quote is indicative of the work she's done, the proposal will include calls for broad limitations on any food not immediately considered in the health-food spectrum.

Let's make something clear -  I am all for people eating healthier foods, and this sort of lifestyle shift would take pressure off of the nation's healthcare system. But Haley's proposals are mere political pandering. And they're riddled with the sort of inadequacies that often encumber ideas put forth by morally and intellectually bankrupt leaders like Nikki Haley.

If you study the issue, you will find political hands in the research on both sides. Some argue that healthy foods are in fact cheaper, but those individuals fail to consider some of the basic challenges facing the legitimately poor. Other studies, like one done by the University of Washington, found that unhealthy food really is cheaper:

The scientists took an unusual approach, essentially comparing the price of a calorie in a junk food to one consumed in a healthier meal. Although fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients, they also contain relatively few calories. Foods with high energy density, meaning they pack the most calories per gram, included candy, pastries, baked goods and snacks.
For the average mother trying to feed a family while working an exhausting job, one of food's primary purposes is to energize. The people most likely to be on food stamps are the working poor, and these people often do not have the benefit of a desk-bound job. They're cleaning homes and businesses, working as cashiers or food servers, and they're on their feet for a dozen hours per day.

The difference in price between unhealthy foods and healthy foods is not small, either. The same UW study found that healthier options cost, on average, around seven times as much per 1,000 calories:

The survey found that higher-calorie, energy-dense foods are the better bargain for cash-strapped shoppers. Energy-dense munchies cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared with $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-energy but nutritious foods.

The study also noted the effect of sudden price shifts. Healthier foods, it seems, are more beholden to the whims of the markets. When you're eating fresh food, you're dependent upon an efficient system where fruits and veggies are harvested and delivered at little cost. A drought can cause the price of these items to rise. A spike in gas prices can make expedited shipping more expensive. Fresh, healthy food, then, becomes even more expensive compared to unhealthy options.

The survey also showed that low-calorie foods were more likely to increase in price, surging 19.5 percent over the two-year study period. High-calorie foods remained a relative bargain, dropping in price by 1.8 percent.
Recent studies conducted by a number of entities, including the federal government, have argued that eating healthy is no more expensive than eating unhealthy. Those studies, though, rely upon metrics like serving size and food weight. While the healthy foods might fill a plate at the same rate as an unhealthy alternative, they fail to provide the requisite energy to sustain the average member of the working poor. Simply put, a person would have to consume more of the healthy option to get his fill. This makes a healthy diet more expensive.

Insulated from the realities of what it's actually like to live poor, people like Nikki Haley make some key and dangerous assumptions. They assume, of course, that all people have the ability to store food in a convenient manner. Fruits and vegetables go bad at a much quicker rate than processed alternatives. Many of the working poor have access to a refrigerator and freezer, but many do not have unlimited access to these things that we take for granted. In addition, a person looking to live on a diet of healthy fruits and vegetables would have to make multiple trips to the grocery store per week. What does that mean for people without vehicles or those working multiple jobs? How do we factor in the cost of gas and mileage for those who do have access to a car? Even those people who view food stamp recipients as mostly worthless would have to admit that an hour of a person's time has some value (at a minimum of $7.25/hour, I would hope).

This, like many of the right-wing ideas aimed at the poor, is reflective of an uninformed view. But there's there something more insidious at work here. I give all people the benefit of the doubt until they have proved themselves unworthy of that benefit. Haley has, in the past, suggested her desire for draconian drug testing of those worthless people living on the government dole. With that in mind, I see no reason to view her latest proposal as one designed to help the healthy of those sympathetic poor characters.

No. She has a history of demonizing those individuals for political gain. And this is just another chapter in that popular book. If you read Haley's words, you see her point to four foods - candy, chocolate, sodas, and chips. If you think back to your childhood, you'll remember those things not as staples of your diet. Rather, they were your treats. I personally liked gummi bears and Snickers. In some cases, I'd put my gummi worms in my Sprite. Chips were designed to be fun, and who among us didn't make the duck face with two symmetrical Pringles chips?

The truth is that most people - poor or otherwise - fill out their daily calorie allotment with a combination of good foods and bad ones. Eating, at least in the American South, is as much a social exercise as it is a nutritional one. What Haley's doing is seeking to limit the ability of those loath-able poor women to buy Reese's for their kids on the hard-earned dollars of true American taxpayers.  

And the reason I know this is quite easy to understand. I've yet to see an accompanying article discussing the governor's desire to add millions of dollars in funding to the state's food stamp program. Because eating healthy is expensive and it's hard. I'm quite certain that a host of food stamp recipients would love to have the benefit of a Whole Foods shopping list. They'd love to dice salads with walnuts and starfruit. But they opt for cheap foods because they're struggling to get by. And because they can't risk having their weekly allotment of food go bad sitting out on the counter. Because that result would mean hungry, crying children.

Nikki Haley is saying, "Hey, you poor people. Stop being so fat and buying your kids candy with our money." She's doing it because she knows it's good politics in a place like South Carolina, where racial animus powers much of the public hatred of the poor.

Her intellectual bankruptcy leaves her unable to see the many angles of complicated policy proposals like the one she's put forth. Her moral bankruptcy leaves her bereft of empathy for those individuals whose lives are so difficult that we absolutely need to deprive them of life's cheap treats like a bag of mother f-ing Skittles.

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 10:24 AM PST.

Also republished by Hunger in America.

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