The solution is not to micromanage the food choices that recipients make.

SACRAMENTO — Let’s start with the obvious. The best way to ensure that Americans have enough money to pay for their groceries is to create a booming economy, keep a tight lid on inflation, and empower Americans to take care of their own families. Instead, the economy is faltering, and prices of everything — including basic food items — are ratcheting out of control. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that food prices are up 17 percent over the past two years.

During tough economic times, the federal government generally fills in the gap with welfare programs. Starting this month, the 42 million Americans who receive payments from the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) — formerly known as food stamps — received a 12.5 percent increase in their benefits. Such payments — as well as the number of recipients — have soared during COVID, just as they soared during the 2008 recession.

There are many critiques one could make about this program. It’s bureaucratic and costly. Like all assistance programs, it promotes government dependence. Food assistance might better be provided at the state level. Nevertheless, as programs go, providing needy people with food assistance is less objectionable, perhaps, than most of the other expenditures from the feds. Congress isn’t about to cut the program or even reform it in a meaningful way.

Instead, some members of Congress are embracing a symbolic “reform” that amounts to little more than pestering program recipients — and the stores that serve them — with some Nanny State regulations. Take, for instance, a House bill known as the “Healthy SNAP Act,” which would limit SNAP dollars from being used for a laundry list of sugary drinks, snack items, and desserts.

“Why should our taxpayer dollars be allowed to be spent on junk foods that provide no nutritional value and contribute to America’s obesity epidemic?” asked bill author Josh Brecheen (R-Okla.). “This is a commonsense reform that will protect taxpayer dollars, improve diet quality, and in the long run will reduce medical costs.”

Per a Washington Examiner article, bill supporters note a National Institutes of Health report finding that Americans in the poorest counties have a much higher obesity rate than those in wealthier counties. Brecheen specifically pointed to a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture study finding that “20 cents out of every dollar was spent on sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.”

The congressman didn’t seem to mention another point in that latter study: “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.” I’m not going out on a limb here to suggest that poorer Americans in general — whether or not they receive benefits formerly known as food stamps — have poorer diets. Nor is it surprising that most Americans spend a significant portion of their budgets on junk food.

My problem is putting Congress and bureaucrats in charge of determining what foods Americans ought to eat, rather than just treating them as adults who can make their own choices, for good or ill. Here in California, lawmakers constantly are trying to improve healthy eating through edicts such attempted bans on super-sized sugary drinks — or taxes on sodas.

In a May Wall Street Journal column, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) defended his similar bill by noting that these efforts are bipartisan: “In 2013 progressive mayors advocated a federal pilot program to test approaches ‘limiting SNAP’s subsidization of products, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, that are contributing to obesity.’” Rubio, who has become an advocate for something known as “common-good capitalism,” ought to just stick with regular old capitalism.

Not that government programs are capitalism, of course, but if Congress decides to provide subsidies, it shouldn’t micromanage people’s spending or force grocery stores to do that for them. I’m not relishing the backed-up checkout lines as a cashier checks to make sure whether each item is an allowable purchase under federal guidelines. If a person wants to buy some potato chips, just let them. If Congress can’t tolerate this, then don’t provide the subsidy.

This kind of micromanaging has been discussed for years. In 2017, a Los Angeles Times editorial asked, “Are we subsidizing a public health crisis by allowing the poor to buy soda with food stamps?” Its conclusion: “Denying poor people the ability to use food aid to buy a Coke on a hot day may raise some unsettling questions. Yet the findings in the USDA’s study about excessive soda consumption shouldn’t be ignored.” Frankly, I have no problem ignoring what other people buy.

Progressives have discussed this issue going back at least to 2010, with the obvious reason being that there’s a villain here: Big Sugar. I’m no tool of the sugar companies, as my recent American Spectator column opposing sugar subsidies makes clear, but my thinking aligns more with economist Milton Friedman. To whatever degree the government decides to subsidize people, it should just give them the money and leave the bureaucrats out of it.

And consider what will happen when the health nuts decide to take their crusade against red meat to the SNAP program. This is another one of those odd battles that take place when, in the words of one columnist, “the welfare state meets the nanny state.” I’m not a fan of either “state,” which is why I think any program reforms ought to focus on more substantive issues.

“Because low-income nutrition is a complex problem, it would be better tackled by diverse policy approaches than by one-size-fits-all national rules,” argued the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards in a paper calling for a more state-focused approach. That’s at least a serious argument. In the meantime, Congress should spend less time trying to stop poor people from buying snacks and more figuring out how our economy can reduce the number of poor people.