CLEVELAND, Ohio — Burt Saltzman, chairman of Dave’s Markets, knows as much as anyone about the way this town really eats.
The dean of Cleveland’s grocery business is 76 but can still be caught bagging groceries at the chain’s flagship store on Payne Avenue. He’s a throwback to a time when people knew their butchers and didn’t buy their groceries and electronics at the same store.
When Saltzman has an opinion on food and public policy, he’s worth listening to He studies his customer base closely. He knows a thing or two about people who have mastered the art of stretching a grocery dollar.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m speaking out of self-interest, but I really don’t like this attack on soda pop. I understand the obesity health concern. But why are they singling out soda?”
“I find it a bit patronizing and a bit puzzling.”
I had called Saltzman to get his take on a push by 18 big city mayors to prohibit food stamp recipients from purchasing soda with their public assistance.
In a letter sent to congressional leaders Tuesday, the mayors called on Congress to revamp the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to specifically ban purchase of sugary-laden beverages, said to be a primary contributor to obesity.
“More than one third of American adults are now obese, costing approximately $147 billion per year in associated medical expenses. As a result of obesity, this generation of American children is the first to face the possibility of a shorter life expectancy than their parents,” read the letter.
A continued conversation about the obesity epidemic is needed. Poor Americans must be part of that conversation. But a government sanctioned grocery list isn’t the answer. And America doesn’t need mayors masquerading as sugar daddies and food monitors.
There are 14 Dave’s grocery stores scattered throughout Greater Cleveland. The shopping patterns demonstrated at each of the stores are fairly similar, according to Saltzman. The habits of those on public assistance are even more predictable, he added.
“Starting at the first of the month for about two weeks most of the customers using food stamps buy staple items. They buy meat, which is 35 percent of sales early in the month.”
“They also buy lots of vegetables and produce. You can tell they are trying to stock their freezers and refrigerators with the essentials. They’re not spending much of their assistance on things like soda.”
“Now as you get near the end of the month and people are running short on money, the sale of meat shrinks and the purchase of other less expensive items increases. But I still don’t believe soda is a big part of what is being bought even then.”
That’s part of what puzzles Saltzman about the full frontal attack on soda, being led byNew York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. There are many other food items that he offers for sale that are arguably less healthy than soda, and he wonder’s if they will also soon end up on a grocery hit list for poor people.
If the government is going after poor people’s soda now, he wonders, when will it start prohibiting the purchase of lard products (pig fat) or smoked meats?
What concerns Saltzman beyond what he views as an unnecessary government intrusion into the grocery industry is the patronizing tone of a government approved shopping list.
“I think people are becoming more aware of what they eat and what they should eat. I watch people reading labels and trying to understand what they are consuming.”
“Do we really need government to tell us what we can or can not eat? I think people are capable of educating themselves and the market can respond by creating healthier products.”
“We’ve already see the beverage companies doing this by coming out with sugar-free options or drinks with no calories.”
More than 47 million Americans used food stamps last year. Among items long declared off limits for purchase were alcohol, cigarettes and fast food. That seems more than reasonable.
But if the American government now turns its sights on poor people’s artificial sugar, where will that campaign end? Some of the same folks that want to keep government out of people’s bedrooms now want to storm into their kitchens.
Yes, Americans would be healthier if we ate more fruits and vegetables and drank less soda.
But in this nation, we still get to choose what we eat.
At least for now we do.