Transcript: Should Food Stamps Be Used for Junk Food?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, April 23, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Candy is dandy, of course, but should taxpayers be feeding the habit of chocoholics who are on food stamps? One state's governor wants folks on welfare to cut back on the Snickers and soda and start eating more healthy. Heather Nauert is here with more on a proposed ban on junk food.

HEATHER NAUERT, FNC CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, Americans on government aid can't use food stamps to buy cigarettes or booze, but they can use food stamps to buy junk food, like candy bars and potato chips. One governor has come out to say this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, so he is trying to stop folks in his state from using food stamps to buy snacks.

You should also know that critics of his say that taking candy away is simply mean-spirited. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (search) joins us from Minneapolis and that's today's big question. Governor, why restrict what people can buy with food stamps?

TIM PAWLENTY (R) MINNESOTA GOVERNOR: We have a health care crisis in America, and one part of it is we have people who are eating unhealthy and we've got an obesity problem. So if we're going to use government money to try to accomplish social good and public policy good, why not promote the goals of good health and good eating? This proposal is an experiment for a state to try something, and it really relates mostly to candy and pop.

NAUERT: OK. Now, your critics would say that it's better to educate people than to prevent them from buying things like candy and other junk food.

PAWLENTY: Well, it certainly awareness and education can be part of it too, but we've tried that over the past 10 or 15 years, and real obesity in the country has gotten worse. And it has a lot to do with diet, and we're not being mean-spirited. There's all sorts of ways that government promotes, encourages, and incentivizes and disincentivizes healthy behavior or tries to discourage unhealthy behavior. And this is just an extension of that.

NAUERT: Now, a lot of folks would look at this and say, OK, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense that people are allowed to buy candy with taxpayer dollars when it's conceivably they should be buying things like fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables and things like that for their children, especially, as you point out, there is an obesity problem. So why is it that there aren't any restrictions on the books in any state in the United States that say you can't buy candy with food stamps?

PAWLENTY: That's a great question, Heather, and that's exactly what we're going to try to change, and it will be a demonstration or a pilot project, and we'll see if it works. There are some arguments on both sides.

NAUERT: Why is that? I mean, are there actually legislators out there, state, federal officials, who say that people should be able to buy candy with food stamps?

PAWLENTY: I suppose, just to speculate — I don't know for sure — there's probably some special interests that make money off this kind of thing, and don't want people discouraged from buying it. The other thing is, I suppose, there are people who say it's America, you should be able to eat what you want. If it's the taxpayers' money, it is the taxpayer's money we should be trying to use it to promote our goals and not talk out of both sides of our mouth. We shouldn't be saying we're against obesity, but on the other hand, we're going to allow people on government programs to inch towards obesity.

NAUERT: Now, is this a big problem in your state?

PAWLENTY: It's not the number one problem or the most significant problem facing our state, but, you know, we do have a health care crisis, and that broader issue is a major problem for our country and for Minnesota. There's no silver answer to that, but this is one piece of it. There's probably 20 or other 30 other things we have to do as well. It will help.

NAUERT: Who is complaining about this? Do you actually get calls into your State Department of Health saying, you know, I saw Mrs. Jones in front of me buying a case of candy bars for her kids?

PAWLENTY: Well, there are some public health experts, observers, and some of the people connected to our Department of Health and Human Services (search) here in Minnesota that have observed this. And there's been concerns and suggestions along these lines, but I can't say there's been some big public revolt over it.

NAUERT: Now, let me ask you, you're a Republican, so some folks would naturally say, hey, you are a Republican. You are supposed to be against bigger government. Is this simply too much big government? Aren't you getting involved in people's private lives?

PAWLENTY: Well, being a Republican or Democrat — I think the main thing is let's try to be smart, let's make smart decisions. Let's use common sense and you can't say, on one hand, we have a major health care crisis. One big piece of that is obesity. By the way, when we use government dollars to advance government — public policy in America, we're going to encourage behavior that's — that's unhealthy. I don't think it's a matter of being anti-good choices or goods decisions. We want to promote good decisions. We do it with seatbelts. We do it with alcohol. We do it with tobacco and a lot of other things.

NAUERT: All right, Governor, we're going to have to leave it there. Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota. Thanks so much.

PAWLENTY: Thank you.

NAUERT: Now even if the feds approve this plan, it still has to pass the state legislature — John.

GIBSON: Equal protection clause of the constitution. If the people on welfare can't buy candy, next Governor Pawlenty says I can't.

NAUERT: You know what, they can buy harpoons with food stamps in Alaska. That is true, in remote parts of Alaska.

GIBSON: Well, that gets food on the table. Heather Nauert, thank you very much.

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