Thursday, June 27, 2013

Congressional food stamp experiment goes horribly awry

Donny Ferguson, an aide to Congressman Steve Stockman (R-TX), recently ran an experiment to see whether he could survive on $31.50 worth of food a week. Two problems immediately arise: First, Ferguson is not a scientist and knows nothing about how to run a scientifically valid experiment, and, second, Ferguson is not a nutritionist and knows nothing about how to plan a diet that won't lead to obesity, malnutrition, and disease. But Donny is a Congressional aide, so he thinks he knows everything. That's a third problem right there.

From a scientific viewpoint, this experiment was doomed from the start. The goal was unclear. It's not hard to live on $31.50 for food. You can get free food at food banks and churches to supplement your diet. You can also get food from dumpsters outside restaurants. There is no problem surviving on a limited budget. The problem is getting the proper nutrition to sustain yourself over a long period of time.

The USDA provides plenty of information on nutrition and healthy food choices. Ferguson, even though he works in the Congress, did not read this information. If he had, he would have learned something important and could have educated his boss's constituents.

Ferguson set up his experiment. His objective was to survive for one week eating only the groceries that can be purchased with a single person's allotment of food stamps, $31.50. He planned to buy food at the cheapest possible place, a dollar store near Washington. He considered that this would give him the best chance of getting enough food to live on.

Ferguson methodically listed the foods he bought, but failed to list the nutritional contents of his food. How much fat and sugar were in these foods? How much did the food weigh? Were there sufficient vitamins and minerals to ward off diseases caused by malnutrition? We have no way of knowing this, but we can make a fair guess from the list of items that Ferguson has provided.

Ferguson's Diet
Two boxes of Honeycomb cereal. Around 50% of the calories in Honeycomb cereal come from sugar, the rest from refined carbohydrates. Note that there are no actual weights here, just number of boxes. Ferguson is using none of the precision he would have to use in a real experiment.
Three cans of red beans and rice. This is processed food, high in sodium. One 15oz can will provide 2/3 of your daily requirement of sodium. We could tell how much protein and other nutrients are in this item if we knew the brand and the size of the can.
Jar of peanut butter. Peanut butter is filling but also has plenty of fat. Less than a quarter cup will give you all your daily fat allowance. The protein is incomplete.
Bottle of grape jelly. Again, mostly sugar. The grapes don't contain much nutrition.
Loaf of whole wheat bread. Undoubtedly not whole wheat bread, but white bread with some whole wheat in it.
Two cans of refried beans. Depending on the brand, a good source of protein and fiber.
Box of spaghetti. Another dose of carbohydrates.
Large can of pasta sauce. Has some vitamins, but also sugar and salt, depending on the brand.
Two liters of root beer. Sugar.
Large box of popsicles. Sugar.
24 servings of Wyler’s fruit drink mix. Sugar.
Eight cups of applesauce. Cooking apples removes most of the nutrients. Mostly sugar.
Bag of pinto beans. Incomplete protein.
Bag of rice. Carbohydrates.
Bag of cookies. Sugar and fat.
gallon of milk. Has calcium but also animal fat containing cholesterol.
Box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal. Oatmeal is the only whole grain in the entire purchase, but it is adulterated by adding even more sugar.
It has been suggested that this diet is a recipe for obesity. Ferguson notes that he gained two pounds only halfway through the week, as if this were not a sign of trouble.
The USDA publishes a pamphlet with the following suggestions for a healthy diet. Ferguson did none of these things:
  1. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. False. Ferguson's diet contains no fruits or vegetables except as flavorings in processed foods.
  2. Switch to skim milk. Unknown.
  3. Make at least half your grains whole. False. Few if any whole grains.
  4. Vary your protein food choices. Presumably to avoid saturated fats in meats. Ferguson's diet has no meat, but his proteins are incomplete, so that they will contribute to his load of empty carbohydrates.
  5. Choose foods and drinks with little or no added sugars. False. Ferguson filled up on sugar to stave off hunger.
  6. Look out for salt in foods you buy. It all adds up. False. Ferguson apparently doesn't realize the amount of sodium that has been added to his processed foods.
Experiment Fails Utterly
Ferguson claims his experiment was successful, but he admits he had to add extra meals outside the allotted 31.50. His excuse is that he had to take a plane trip and could not take his canned food with him.
It does not matter what his excuse may be. Ferguson did not complete his intended test and his results are utterly meaningless. Real scientific experiments require strict controls to assure that the tests can be replicated by other researchers.
Although Ferguson may have been able to survive for one week on this diet, the diet is extremely unhealthy. The large number of empty calories in this diet will lead to obesity, not because Ferguson is overeating, as many believe, but because he is not getting enough nutrition from his food.
Just as Ferguson was obsessed with the cost of his food but not the quality, the Republicans in congress are obsessed with cutting costs without considering the consequences. The result of Ferguson's diet would be obesity, disease, and early death. The results of Republican policies will be deteriorating quality of life for all of us by reducing the money spent on infrastructure, increasing costs of disaster repairs and insurance, deteriorating environment due to air and water pollution, increasing poverty, stagnation due to chronic unemployment, all of which should lead to social unrest.
A bad diet and a bad political policy both lead to predictably bad consequences.

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