Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) has an interesting idea: instead of paying the poor to buy cheap, processed foods that make them sick, offer a discount -- and thereby more food -- if they purchase fresh produce.

It's an innovation to welfare that does much more than maintain the status quo. The congressman argues that his program could even result in a significant savings on the total amount Americans spend annually on health care.

Under legislation Rep. Weiner has proposed, food stamp recipients would get a 50 percent discount for every government dollar they spend on fresh fruit and vegetables. Grocers who sell produce to food stamp recipients would still get the full sticker price.

The congressman hopes his bill would lead to more adults choosing to eat healthier foods from local sources, instead of centering their diets around mass-produced, processed food products that tend to be cheaper and more readily available.

With more than 72 million Americans currently considered obese, the proposed front-end investment of nearly $2.6 billion seems modest when compared to the government's annual obesity-related health costs, estimated to be approaching $168 billion a year. A media advisory from Weiner's office estimated that the initial investment in the program represents about 3.8 percent of the total spent on food stamps in 2009.

“We think this is a good way to incentivize good behavior and also to save tax payers a lot of money because obese citizens wind up costing the treasury an enormous amount,” the congressman told CBS New York.

Weiner's move follows a proposal by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who asked the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to forbid the use of food stamps to purchase sugary sodas in New York, as part of what he called an "experiment". The mayor's suggestion, while seemingly well-meaning, was largely viewed as unworkable in that the USDA does not have the authority to change federal law, which is rather particular about how to define "food" -- and soda is not omitted.

According to The New York Times, the law permits that food stamps be used to purchase "any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption."

The USDA also rejected a similar proposal from Minnesota in 2004, the Times noted.

Weiner's proposal, on the other hand, seems like it would have a better chance at accomplishing its goals, but only if Democrats can get it through Congress.

"On average, persons who are obese have medical costs that are $1,429 more than persons of normal weight," Rep. Weiner's office said in its advisory. "According to the [National Institutes of Health], American life expectance will drop by as much as 5 years unless aggressive efforts are made to slow rising rates of obesity."

A recent Colombia University study placed life expectancy in the US at 49th when compared to other industrialized nations. The study's authors posited that high rates of obesity, smoking, homicides and traffic fatalities may have contributed to the decline.

"We know Americans will make healthy food decisions when they have the means to do so," Rep. Weiner said. "This program will help curb obesity, cut health costs and provided much needed financial relief to 41 million Americans."

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