Dr. Tom's New Folly

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This article first appeared on July 22, 2008 in the New York Post:

City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden apparently didn't notice the scandalous revelations about City Council "member items" earlier this year -- at least, it hasn't stopped him from jumping feet first into his own no-accountability giveaway.

His department is giving away 30,000 taxpayer-funded $2 coupons this month as part of its Health Bucks program -- and says it may hand out "significantly more" later this summer.

Getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables is a worthwhile goal. But the plan invites corruption -- and could worsen the problem it's supposed to fix.

The department has so far been unable to explain to me a rationale for its system of distributing these vouchers, but it's handing them out via sundry community groups -- with no requirements on how the groups distribute them and no limits on how many Health Bucks can go to a single person.

Again, poorly monitored gifts to such groups were at the heart of the City Council's member-items scandal. But that's not the only problem here.

The coupons will supposedly help inner-city residents get purportedly hard-to-find vegetables for free. Like food stamps, they can pay for produce only at certain green markets -- farmers markets out on the sidewalk, schoolyards or parks -- in the South Bronx, Harlem and some Brooklyn neighborhoods. (Poor residents of other areas are out of luck.)

Yet green markets are only open in harvest months. And the program does nothing to persuade consumers to make wiser purchases the rest of the year.

Indeed, the program diverts consumers from supermarkets and bodegas -- which Frieden's team seems to think don't supply quality and affordable produce now. But the program does nothing to get these year-round venues to change.

Come fall, when the green markets are gone, customers may return to the supermarkets only to find the stores have largely abandoned stocking vegetables -- not wanting to compete with produce the city has made free.

Also, the program allows people to switch to organic produce -- which is more expensive but no more nutritious.

Despite popular wisdom, organic produce is no safer or healthier than traditionally grown. In a new report, Joseph Rosen, emeritus professor of Food Toxicology at Rutgers University, concludes: "There were no differences in nutrient content between organically and conventionally grown crops."

Other food vouchers -- like those in the federal Women, Infants and Children program -- come with sensible rules requiring users to buy the least expensive product. Health Bucks, by contrast, are meant to go for green markets' overpriced organic produce.

Nor do Health Bucks get people to change their overall eating behavior and food choices. Recipients can buy exotic purple potatoes on the taxpayer tab -- and make tasty, fattening mashed potatoes -- but that's no boon to health. But it's all just peachy as far as the Health Department is concerned: As a department spokesperson told me, "Potatoes are vegetables, too."

In short, the program is more of Frieden's smug, psuedoscientific elitism -- spending taxpayer dollars (with no apparent awareness of the potential for abuse) to try to get poor people to adopt a trend that's grown popular with the better-off.

People undeniably make unhealthy eating choices. Instead of throwing money for pricey food at the problem, though, we should encourage people to change their behavior - perhaps to take a cooking class and get food vouchers for graduating. Free, trendy vegetables -- for only part of the year -- just don't cut it.