10/29/2013 01:04 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Cutting Food Stamps Hampers the War Against Obesity

With all the efforts in D.C. to cut the food stamp program (SNAP) , we need to take a step back and look at just what the program is doing, or not doing, and how it helps or hinders the health of our vulnerable in this country.

The SNAP program has saved millions from starvation, but the current low funding levels have had devastating unintended consequences.

A good friend remarked recently that America seems to be the only country with overweight poor people. He and I grew up with pictures of Biafran children with skeletal bodies and bloated bellies. In a way, he is right, but I think he is coming to the wrong conclusion.

At the turn of the 20th century, opulence meant corpulence. No one doubted that Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft were wealthy. They definitely looked the part, right down to being so obese that waistcoats and bathtubs had to be widened in the White House.

But the wealthy stereotype has changed. Back in that day, it was the pale folks who were wealthy, and the darker-skinned folks who were poor. Now, the wealthy have time to work on their tans, and the poor, for the most part, look paler from working 10 to 12 hours a day inside. In fact, some office buildings have installed full-spectrum lighting to reduce the amount of seasonal deprivation syndrome.

But the most dramatic change has been the way our diets have been altered. In this time of packaged, prepared foods, those with lower incomes find themselves surrounded by foods that have the magic ingredients of high fructose corn syrup, added salt, added fats and enough preservatives, emulsifiers and artificial colors and flavors that almost make food indistinguishable from shampoo. (Check the ingredient labels!)

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was a gift from the Nixon administration. It was created to subsidize the American corn industry and help us break free from foreign countries that produce sugar cane and sugar beet.

We had fought several wars over sugar, just as we seem to reach for the military to help us with our oil supply. The war in the Philippines was the United States' way to wrest control of that nation's sugar production from Spain, as well as from the Philippine people. The Spanish-American war in Cuba was another conflict fought for the same reason.

But HFCS was more than just a gift to the corn industry. It was a godsend for the exponentially growing prepared food industry, as well. It was inexpensive to produce, completely domestic, and had the amazing capacity to sweeten food and leave the consumer hungry for more.
In the meantime, prices for fruits, vegetables and dairy products are rising much faster than those of prepared foods.

That is where the SNAP program is supposed to fit in. As the name implies, it is meant to be a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The basic amount of food that a family can afford is known in food academic circles as the Nutritional Floor, and the SNAP program is supposed to be there to keep poor families from eating off the "floor," so to speak.

But poverty in Florida and across the country is forcing families to eat the less expensive, less nutritious, more fattening foods. Soda, chips, mystery-meat hot dogs and bagged cookies, cakes and Pop Tarts have become staple foods. Initially, poor people bought them to save money, but then they became addicted to the sugar.

Now the poor have to deal with high caloric foods that make you want to eat more of the same. Also, their obesity rates are climbing along with the associated medical problems, including diabetes.

This is the bottom line: If the SNAP program was at sufficient levels to accomplish its original goal, the poor, with self-control, counseling and motivation, could get up from the nutritional floor.

For the health of those vulnerable Americans, there needs to be more funding, not less. A stout body type used to be a sign of wealth, but not anymore. For now, with this economy and this food, our chubby poor can't get off the "floor."

This post was originally published in the new political commentary and news e-magazine Context Florida as well as Health News Florida.