Monday, February 22, 2016

Boiling the Frog

There is a story to explain the slow advancement of unpleasant or unacceptable practices into any society or business.  It is the gruesome tale of boiling a frog.  If you take a live frog and drop him into a vat of boiling water, the frog feels the heat and immediately jumps out.  If instead you put the frog in a pan of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog is not distressed at first and slowly gets accustomed to the slightly warmer temperatures until it’s too late.  At that point the frog’s complacency becomes his undoing and he is boiled without any resistance.  This story is probably completely false.  But taken as a fable, the moral is very powerful.

It came to mind when the PBS News Hour reported a new government rule concerning the SNAP Program (formerly known as Food Stamps).  “The U.S. government wants to steer the 46 million Americans who receive food stamps toward healthier food choices. The USDA plans to require retailers that accept those benefits to stock more fresh foods.”  In an interview, they go on to describe how it will affect both the retailers and the customers. 

The retailers will be required to stock at least 168 items of healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables.  They are expected to display them in a way to encourage their purchase – meaning food should be attractive and placed at eye level and all the other tricks grocers use to increase sales of certain products.  Some stores that today accept food stamps don’t have adequate refrigeration capacity to carry the additional products and don’t understand the storage and handling requirements.  They may have to invest in equipment and training, which will push up their costs, costs that most likely get passed along to their customers.  (Remember that grocery stores in poor neighborhoods are already being criticized for their higher prices, a situation partly driven by their lower volume business and partly by the increased risk of doing business in these neighborhoods in the first place.  Now come more regulations to increase the complexity of their business.)

On the customer side, there is not yet any requirement.  “A person using food stamp dollars could still purchase as much junk food as they wanted, but they would at least have more options in the store to buy fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats and bread.”  There is no guarantee that having the option will change behavior.

But officials at the USDA have very good intentions.  They want Food Stamp recipients to eat healthier.  If access to the food doesn’t do the trick, what might be the next steps?  That is the question we should always ask when people with good intentions start making rules.

Just 20 months ago the American Beverage Association fought off a proposed ban on the purchase of sugary soft drinks with Food Stamps.  The ban was based on research at Harvard and the University of California and backed by mayors of 18 major cities and influential elected officials in Washington.  The ABA argued that soft drinks were not the only problem.  Findings of those studies, however, were backed by another study released by Health Affairs showing that “a proposed ban on sugar sweetened beverages purchased with SNAP benefits would significantly reduce obesity in adults ages 18-65.”

Will the junk food industries continue to prevail in this battle with the food police?  Though this affects only Food Stamp users, what are the likely longer-term ramifications on the rest of us?

As I pointed out last time, this always happens when people don’t take responsibility.  Kind people with big hearts and good intentions start limiting options, taking away freedom.  When they can’t put prohibitions in place all at once; they ease into it.

The frog fable always gets a little scarier when you realize that you might be the frog.

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