Saturday, February 13, 2010

Can You Legislate Nutrition?

Food fight? Well, not exactly.

Fight against Food Tax.  More like it.

In fact, there was a tortilla rally at the New Mexico state capitol on Friday afternoon.  

Here's why.  Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly approved SB 10, which reinstates a gross receipts tax for some grocery items, including processed foods. 

While this is not the all-encompassing food tax we feared, it does apply to some basic food items.

First, let me give a big hooray for the list of exempt items, which include fresh fruit, vegetables, cereal, tofu, beans, legumes, most types of cheese and whole-grain bread and tortillas.  But under the bill, items produced with white flour, like bread tortillas,  and noodles, would now be subject to a tax, along with junk food and soda pop. 

Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, a Democrat from Albuquerque who was the lead sponsor of the bill, says this initiative is designed to encourage healthy eating.  And her fellow Democrats and most of the Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee agree.   "This might be the auspices of getting eating habits changed," Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, a Republican from Sandia Park, told the Albuquerque Journal.  Here is a link to the full story if you have a subscription to the Journal.

This is a very commendable goal.  But there is a major flaw with this thinking.  Everyone knows that whole-wheat and whole-grain breads and tortillas are more expensive (sometimes much more expensive) than their less nutritious counterparts.   So unless we bring down the price of those other products, the cost of eating is still going to go up for low-income families.  

Also, I am not confident that simply raising the price of these products will encourage better eating habits.  They must be accompanied by a major nutrition education initiative.  I do not see the Senate Finance Committee making this parallel move.  “We should not be having a debate between white bread and brown bread, Allen Sanchez of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops (NMCCB) said at the tortilla rally. (Read full story in New Mexico Independent, and see video from the Independent at the bottom of this post)

So this is more about raising the $138 million in revenues for the state treasury than it is about the nutritional needs of New Mexicans.   

Here's evidence that it's all about revenues and not nutrition (from the Journal story):
The food tax measure is the largest revenue-generator of a budget package on its way to the Senate floor. The Senate Finance Committee overhauled the House-approved $5.6 billion budget, which featured smaller spending cuts and larger tax increases.
Don't get me wrong, most of us are willing to start paying taxes on soda pop, the occasional bag of chips, ketchup, mustard, some canned goods and other products to help create new revenues for the state.  But I don't think  half-hearted efforts at promoting nutrition will do anyone any good. 

And fortunately, this fight is not over.   While SB 10 has a chance of passing in the full Senate, the House is on record as opposing the type of tax proposed by the Senate Finance Committee.   The House would increase the gross receipts tax by 1/2 cent across the board instead of the selective food tax.  

But I think there is a compromise (possibly in conference committee). Sodas and junk food and some processed items should still be taxed, but white bread, macaroni and cheese, and other similar items should also be exempt.   And maybe a gross receipts tax of 1/4 cent could also be imposed.

Stay tuned.   Meantime, here is a video of the Tortilla Rally

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