Food Stamp Sticks and Carrots with Congressman Weiner

Political strategists, eating partners and brothers.

Amidst the recent broohah over Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to bar Gotham’s food stamp users from buying sodas and other sugary drinks, we were impressed when Representative Anthony Weiner, Democratic congressman for the city’s 9th district, announced perhaps a more constructive—and palatable–option:  give a 50 percent discount to food stamp recipients who purchase fresh produce. We immediately emailed Rep. Weiner’s brother, Chef Jason Weiner.

“You lead a horse to water enough times, eventually he’s gonna take a sip,” said Chef Weiner of his brother, channeling the cheerful, slapstick banter these brothers demonstrated when Edible sat them down this past spring at Almond, Jason’s seasonally inspired Flatiron restaurant.

In fact, Rep. Weiner has learned from his brother’s culinary ethos, as we reported: “It informed the work I did on the Farm Bill,” he told us. “I was focused mostly on hunger policy, but you know the perverse incentives that are built into our agricultural industry, we over-sugar things and travel too far with them. We made some changes in (last year’s) farm bill to make it possible to eat with food stamps closer to home and to eat at the farm stand as well.”

But no good deed goes unpunished. According to Anemona Hartocollis’s piece in the Sunday New York Times, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposals–and presumably Rep. Weiner’s–have attracted opposition from antihunger groups and the food industry, a joint lobbying block at least since the 1960s, when supporters “championed the modern-day food stamp program as part of an effort that would help both poor people and farmers,” by finding an outlet for surplus farm product.

The fact remains that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the new name for the Federal Food Stamp program), is at $56 billion the majority of our nation’s Farm Bill—with nearly $3 billion spent on food stamps in New York City alone. So tweaking food assistance is an obvious way to modify the eating habits of a larger chunk of our nation. Recent estimates suggest that the annual medical costs of obesity are as high as $147 billion in the United States and that American life expectancies will drop by as much as five years unless aggressive efforts are made to slow rising rates of obesity. “We know Americans will make healthy food decisions when they have the means to do so,” said Rep. Weiner. “This program will help curb obesity, cut health costs and provided much needed financial relief to 41 million Americans.”

It seems like common sense, but political change requires constant vigilance. Chef Weiner, it seems, doesn’t just keep his eyes on the stovetop. This morning he forwarded me this discussion, which features a Bloomberg food-tax spoof from tank-topped SlateV host Iliza Vie. We assume Rep. Weiner received the forward too.

Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.

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