Congress Could Cut Soda and Candy from SNAP, but Big Sugar is Pushing Back

Proposed rules would keep recipients from buying soda and junk food with SNAP dollars but sugar lobbyists are spending big to maintain the status quo.


This article was produced by MapLight in partnership with Civil Eats.

Members of Congress could be caught between their constituents and industry interests when it comes to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as “food stamps.”

A recent study by the nonpartisan nonprofit group Voice of the People found that more than 70 percent of Americans favor banning the use of food stamps to buy soda and candy. However, both the sugar and soda industries are large campaign donors to the House agriculture committee, which approves the SNAP program’s operations.

Sugar growers and cooperatives have contributed more than $1 million to campaign efforts for the 46 current members of the committee. Non-alcoholic beverage companies have contributed about $225,000.

The findings come as the committee is considering a new farm bill, which will set the parameters for SNAP funding. The congressional panel considered the pros and cons of restricting food stamp purchases at a hearing earlier this year. “Our goal is to provide much-needed nutrition and to encourage Americans to eat healthier,” said Rep. K. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican who leads the panel and is a proponent of the sugar restriction.

The debate over a potential restriction of sugary food and drinks by SNAP recipients has emerged amid growing concerns over the nutritional health of Americans. Recent studies have found links between sugar and heart disease, and soft drinks have been linked to diabetes, strokes, and dementia. This is not the first time the issue has been raised; in 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rejected a request by New York City officials to test a two-year ban on the purchase of soda and other sugary drinks with SNAP dollars.

“This issue has pitted anti-obesity and public health groups against the anti-hunger community,” said Dr. Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “On the one hand, the public health community says these beverages are contributing to ill health through obesity and diabetes. On the other hand, the hunger community says people are already stigmatized for using these benefits, and that to take something away would further stigmatize them.”

In 2013, the American Medical Association came out in favor of banning the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP benefits. Anti-hunger groups, however, remain opposed to SNAP restrictions. In a February research brief the Food Research and Action Center listed numerous reasons for opposing a restriction on SNAP purchases. The center said the program should avoid “singling out poor people based on misconceptions or exaggerations.”

While the arguments for and against the restrictions vary, there’s no dispute that sugary food and drinks are big business, even among SNAP recipients. A November 2016 USDA report showed that roughly 20 cents of every food stamp dollar were spent on sweetened drinks, desserts, or salty snacks. Sweetened beverages were the second most-purchased item with SNAP benefits, accounting for slightly more than 9 percent of the bill. Prepared desserts made up 7 percent of purchases, and candy totaled 2 percent.

Any restriction on food stamp purchases poses a potentially major problem for the sugar and soda industries, and they are lobbying Congress heavily in the hopes of shaping the final farm bill legislation.

Efforts to restrict SNAP purchases have drawn the attention of soda manufacturers during previous farm bill debates. The American Beverage Association filed 10 different lobbying reports during the debate over the last farm bill. Industry political action committees (PACs) also contribute heavily to members of the House agriculture panel considering the issue. Sugar industry PACs have given $1 million to committee members since 2015; soda industry committees kicked in another $190,700.

“The beverage industry is a very powerful political force,” Brownell said. “The individual companies have a good bit of political sway, and then they also act through their trade association. They stand to lose a lot of money if there is a change in SNAP policy, so I would imagine they would be very active on this front.”

Coca-Cola Co. donated the largest amount from the soda industry, contributing $100,750. The biggest sugar industry donor to the House Agriculture Committee was American Crystal Sugar, which gave $451,900. The Moorhead, Minn.-based cooperative is the largest beet sugar producer in the United States.

The industry’s largest individual donor has so far been Edwin C. Rice, chief executive of the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co. He gave $10,700 to Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., whose district includes Rice’s business.

The West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Fanjul family—which owns Florida Crystals and Domino Sugar—have been major donors as well. Jose F. Fanjul gave $8,870, making him the highest individual donor for the sugar industry, while the company itself contributed $500,000 to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Fanjul and his brother Alfy hosted fundraisers for both Hillary Clinton and Trump.

The recipients of the most donations were top committee lawmakers. Rep. Collin C. Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat and former committee chairman, received $61,000. Rep. Frank D. Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and former panel leader, received $35,500. Conaway, the committee chairman, has gotten $66,000.

Regardless of the amount of money spent on campaign contributions, the SNAP program may be faced with significant changes by the time lawmakers craft a 2018 farm bill. Trump has proposed slashing the food stamp program by more than 25 percent, and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has said the administration doesn’t want the program “to become a lifestyle for people who become dependent on a government program.”

Leave a Comment

View Comments

  1. Monday, August 28th, 2017
    This isn't just a debate about Big Sugar and eating healthy, many anti-hunger advocates also oppose these restrictions. SNAP recipients purchase as much soda and junk food as the general population, and quite frankly their benefit levels often aren't high enough to give them the purchasing power to eat better. Rather than banning foods, efforts should be focused on educating people on how to eat a better diet and on nutrition incentive programs such as the Fair Food Network's Double Up Food Bucks.
  2. Gerald Franzen
    Monday, August 28th, 2017
    I have consumed at least one serving of Coca-Cola daily for over fifty-five years, It's refreshing,hydrating, energizing and it tastes great.It ls a wholesome product made from the purest ingredients. For over 130 years it has been associated with family, fun, friends,food and life milestone events. Even in the bush Viet Nam, I enjoyed a Coca-Cola as high of quality as any stateside millionaire'
    It's easy for someone trying to make a sensation for self aggrandizing reasons to attack a company like Coca-Cola,or tax it . It takes no wit or courage to attack an entity that does't stoop to engaging in unfounded vitriol. It just doesn't benefit from squabbling with potential customers for its plethora of beverages including juices,milk,tea,water and so on. At the beginning and end of the product line, Coca-Cola stands tall!
  3. Christine maciel
    Tuesday, August 29th, 2017
    Cut the sugary drinks, they have nutritional value. Shame on all the funded congressional members, they don't work for the sugar industry, they work for their constituents!
  4. Kayla
    Wednesday, August 30th, 2017
    My quick thought solution to somewhat rectify this situation is to implement a soda/sugar tax for all therefore lessening the stigma on SNAP participants. The tax money could then be diverted to public health funds or subsidizing fruits and vegetables. The government should put public health above protecting corporate sponsorships with big sugar, big pharma, or big agriculture.
  5. Ryan Weston
    Wednesday, August 30th, 2017
    I am the CEO of the Florida Sugar Cane League. We don't lobby on the SNAP issue. The food and beverage companies that make drinks, food and candy may lobby on that issue. The inclusion in the headline of "but Big Sugar is pushing back" is false unless you are including those associations as Big Sugar. Sugar farmers don't have a national check off program promoting sugar consumption either. We believe in moderation and common sense when taking about food consumption.
  6. Tim Wyatt
    Thursday, September 7th, 2017
    The way to good health is a clean diet and regular exercise. That also applies to people who have need of the SNAP program. But they get to choose. Just like I get to choose.