Easy as Pie

Perhaps you have heard about the recent ruckus over a bakery owner in Massachusetts declining an invitation to start accepting food stamps for her desserts. If not, here are the highlights, as reported in several places but quoted here from the Boston Herald:

Andrea Taber is the owner of Ever So Humble Pie Co. in Walpole, MA. On Fridays she sells her desserts at the farmer’s market in Braintree, MA. In May, Braintree Farmers Market chairwoman Donna Ingemanson wrote to all of the market’s vendors “‘encourage everyone who sells eligible products to participate’ in a program in which the market will sell tokens to EBT cardholders [food stamps] to use at market stalls.”

Andrea Taber declined. Why? “Taber told the Herald she has no problem with customers using their taxpayer-funded welfare benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. But she draws a line when it comes to her own sweet, fatty goods.” Taber said, “I don’t think American taxpayers should be footing the bill for people’s pie purchases. … To me it’s no different than nail salons and Lottery tickets. It’s pastry, it’s dessert. My pies are great, but come on.”

Now, whether or not Taber’s decision not to accept the EBT tokens means that the market as a whole had to choose not to is not made clear in the article, but I cannot imagine why it would mean that. If the plan involves selling tokens to EBT users to use at the vendor stalls, it would seem easy enough that those tokens could simply be used at every other stall and anyone purchasing from Taber would have to make alternative payment. Apparently that is not okay, though, because Ingemanson told Taber that they “really need to work something out,” and the market management is planning to consider whether or not to make acceptance of EBT a requirement for the market vendors next year. Ingemanson called Taber’s refusal a “one-woman protest.”

Now, ignoring the fact that businesses have to apply to accept EBT payments, “and normally are not obliged to do so,” Taber is receiving a considerable amount of negative attention, and even being accused of being discriminatory for not accepting the payments.

In a separate Boston Herald article, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick avoided the real issue of the debate when asked about the controversy, saying simply, “Well, look, I think SNAP benefits at farmers markets is a great idea [the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program underwrites EBT benefits]. She’s entitled to her opinion. I respect it. But I think it’s really, really important that people who are poor and on EBT benefits have access to fresh produce.”

Taber, of course, agrees on that point, and I cannot think of anyone who would disagree. After all, vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, and that is exactly what the SNAP and EBT programs are for–to provide healthy food for those unable to afford it.

Interestingly, if you visit the USDA web site’s page on the SNAP program the first thing you will see on the top of the page is this announcement: “Fighting SNAP Fraud. Americans support helping struggling families put food on the table, but they also want to know taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. FNS’ proactive strategies protect the Federal investment in SNAP and ensure that the program is targeted towards individuals and families who need it the most. Learn the facts and help us Fight SNAP Fraud.” Wouldn’t part of ensuring that these funds are spent wisely include making sure that they are spent on necessities–including fresh vegetables–but not spent on extras, unnecessary items, and even (let’s be honest!) unhealthy items…like whoopie pie?

The SNAP web site includes a FAQ section, and one of the questions is “What foods can I buy with SNAP benefits?” The answer: “You CAN use SNAP benefits to buy foods for the household to eat, such as breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and poultry, dairy products. You can also use your benefits to buy seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat.” Now that does not explicitly rule out desserts, but it would be stretch to fit desserts into one of those categories (other than the incredibly broad “foods for the household to eat”). Later in the answer it says, “Items that carry a nutrition facts label are eligible foods.” No, I could be wrong, but I doubt that Taber’s pies carry a nutrition label.

Under the “Answers Others Found Helpful” feature below the answer cited above is the question “Why can people buy junk food with their SNAP benefits?” The answer to that question includes this statement: “The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 defines an eligible food as ‘any food or food product for home consumption….'” It goes on to state, however, that FNS is “concerned about the health and nutrition of SNAP clients.” So, while pies and other unhealthy desserts do fit within the “let’s not miss anything” definiton of “any food or food product,” they are not healthy, they are not necessary, and they certainly should not be purchased with tax dollars.

Ignoring the politics of this debate, what if any biblical principles are applicable? Clearly Scripture instructs that believers are to care for those who are unable to care for themselves, including orphans, widows and the poor. Proverbs 3:28 makes it clear that Christians are to help those in need when they can, and do so immediately, not later. Jesus made it clear that God’s law can be summarized in two commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). Galatians 6:10 says that Christians are to do good to everyone, and especially fellow believers. James 2 talks at length about the worthlessness of faith without works, and provides specific condemnation against telling those in need to be warm or be filled while doing nothing to meet those needs.

So I have no problem with helping those in need, and I think it is a biblical commandment to do so. Whether or not the Bible teaches that that is a government responsibility or a church responsibility is a separate discussion, and one I will not launch into now; for sake of this discussion, lets just say that food stamps in an of themselves are a fine program for assisting those in need. That said, though, I do not think there is anywhere in Scripture that one could find support for using assistance for those in need to purchase pie, or any other unnecessary “extra.” I do not think one could find a nutritionist that would argue that pies should be a regular part of anyone’s diet or that those least able to provide for their own nutritional needs should have pie provided for them. I do not even think that one could find a liberal politician–if he or she was willing to be completely honest–that could, with a straight face and genuine conviction–argue that individuals on food stamps need to be able to buy pie with their taxpayer-funded benefits.

So what’s the big deal? Andrea Taber is well within her rights to decline to accept food stamps. What’s more, she has brought attention to a real problem in the SNAP program–the use of taxpayer funds to purchase food items that are nothing but sugary fluff. Delicious, sure, but not at all necessary. Really, it’s as easy as pie.

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