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New York: No soda with food stamps

Citing obesity epidemic, New York wants to add sugary drinks to the list of items you can't buy with food stamps. Is that fair to the poor?

By Teresa Mears Oct 7, 2010 3:52PM

New York has a modest proposal: Don't let people use food stamps to buy soda.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Jay Patterson have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, to authorize a two-year demonstration project in New York City in an effort to combat obesity.


The ban would apply to any beverage that contains more than 10 calories per 8-ounce serving (soda has 150), except for milk and fruit juices without added sugar.


Being of the mind that no one should drink soda except as an occasional treat, we think this sounds like a great idea.


The only question is what measures could be enacted to curb the consumption of soda and other sugary drinks by people who don't use food stamps.

Perhaps a tax? Bloomberg tried, but was unable to push through a tax on sugary drinks in New York. He has also led crusades against smoking, trans fats and salt and pushed for calorie counts on restaurant menus. (We love those.)


Thomas Farley, city health commissioner, and Richard F. Daines, state health commissioner, explained the rationale behind the proposal to ban soda purchases with food stamps in a column in The New York Times:

Medical researchers have increasingly associated the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages with weight gain and the development of diabetes. Over the past 30 years, consumption of sugary beverages in the United States has more than doubled, in parallel with the rise in obesity, to the point where nearly one-sixth of an average teenager's calories now come from these drinks.

Backers of the ban argue that taxpayers shouldn't be paying for the consumption of products that don't promote nutrition -- one of the goals of the food stamp program -- and that contribute to preventable illnesses that cost the public money through higher health care expenses.


They argue that if the government can ban the use of food stamps for cigarettes, beer, wine, liquor and prepared foods, why can't it add soda to the list?


But those who oppose such a ban argue that it smacks of Big Brother and plays into a stereotype that poor people don't know how to spend their grocery money properly.


Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is no friend of sugary drinks, isn't sure New York has the right idea. The organization's George Hacker suggested that an educational campaign -- which New York has done -- might be preferable. He told the Times:

The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages. However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps.

Perhaps the baby carrot promoters can plan a special trip to New York.


Minnesota tried and failed in 2004 to get the federal government to prohibit food stamp use for junk food, including candy and soda. Congress debated but didn't pass a measure that would ban food stamp purchases of soda in 2008, the Times reported.


Certainly, if the government bans the purchase of soda with food stamps, there could be efforts to add other products to the ban, opening a major debate over what constitutes junk food and whether whole classes of food should be demonized. A soda a year won't hurt anyone, but a 12-ounce soda a day will add 15 pounds to a person in a year, New York health officials say.


The Times interviewed 24-year-old food stamp recipient Marangeley Reyes, emerging from a store with a 20-ounce bottle of Orange Crush. She said she drinks a bottle every day. At first she said it was none of the mayor's business. But then she said, "I probably shouldn't be drinking so much soda."


Marian Nestle, author of the popular Food Politics blog, had another suggestion:

I am, as readers of this blog well know, no fan of sodas. If people want to do something about controlling body weight, the best place to begin is by cutting out sodas. Soft drinks contain sugars and, therefore, calories, but nothing else. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest has long maintained, sodas are liquid candy. And I am on record as favoring soda taxes (see previous posts) as a strategy to discourage use, especially among young people.
But if I were in charge of food stamps, I would much prefer incentives: make the benefit worth twice as much when spent for fresh (or single-ingredient frozen) fruits and vegetables.

What do you think? Should the government ban the use of food stamps to buy soda and other sugary drinks? How about giving food stamp recipients extra credit toward fruits and vegetables? What about a tax on soda for everyone? If not, should public health officials take other measures to try to curb soft-drink consumption? Why do Americans eat such an unhealthy diet and how can that be changed?


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