Banning Soda for Food Stamps' Recipients Raises Tough Questions | Civil Eats

Banning Soda for Food Stamps’ Recipients Raises Tough Questions

On Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he had asked the US Department of Agriculture to allow the city to exempt soda from the permitted list of items its 1.7 million food stamp recipients can purchase with their benefits. This ban would last for two years, enough time to assess its effects and determine whether the ban should be continued on a permanent basis. New York City food stamp recipients spend an estimated $75 million to $135 million of their $2.7 billion in food stamps annually on soda, according to AP.  

Anti-hunger and public health advocates at odds over proposal

Public health advocates contend the obesity epidemic is costing the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars per year in increased health care costs, and sugar sweetened drinks are a major factor.   They correctly note that low income persons tend to have higher rates of diet related diseases than the general public: poor New Yorkers have twice the rate of adult-onset diabetes than compared to the wealthiest. Mayor Bloomberg noted, “Sugar-sweetened drinks are not worth the cost to our health, and government shouldn’t be promoting or subsidizing them.”

On the other hand, anti-hunger advocates argue that food stamp recipients should have the same freedom of choice at the supermarket checkout counter as any middle class person. Exercising that freedom is a matter of personal dignity that the poor all too often are not afforded. Restricting soda is the first step in a slippery slope toward further demeaning regulations on what food stamp recipients can buy.  They correctly point out that poor people often can’t afford produce, as nutritious foods tend to be more expensive per calorie than less healthy food.

The anti-hunger community is correct that historically, as a nation, we have treated the poor paternalistically. American social, educational and health policy is littered with countless examples of this failed approach. Regulating what food stamp recipients can and can’t buy with their benefits puts forth the message that they are not capable of making good decisions, and the government needs to set forth boundaries to protect them from their own poor choices. To the contrary, some studies have shown that food stamp recipients actually buy more nutritious food per dollar than non-food stamp recipients.

Anti-hunger advocates are also right that poor people typically can’t afford nutritious foods. Highly processed foods, such as ramen, fill up a belly more cheaply than broccoli and whole wheat pasta.  In our food system, high calorie foods with low nutritional value are cheaper than nutrient dense foods. For example, a 12 pack of 12-ounce cans of Coke (144 oz.) at Kroger’s costs $2.79 on sale, while a half gallon (64 oz.) of Minute Maid orange juice (also a Coca Cola Inc. product) is $2.49. The bad choice is the cheap choice.

On the other hand, public health groups are dead-on accurate that it is irresponsible public policy to be subsidizing with tax dollars the purchase of unhealthy products that will burden society with increased health care costs in the future.  As a nation, we’re subsidizing soda companies $4 billion annually through the food stamp program. In return, decades later, the public will be stiffed with the hospital bill for billions of dollars more for extra health care costs from these poor dietary choices.

Thorny issue raises questions

Why are anti-hunger advocates in the absurdly precarious position of protecting the right of poor people to drink soda? Do I have a right as an American to poison myself with “soft” drinks that can dissolve the rust off a car? Does it matter whether I use my own money or tax dollars?  Should freedom of choice apply to products of marginal utility if not harmful products?

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Why does it cost Coca-Cola more to produce a half-gallon of orange juice than a half gallon of Coke? How do we reverse this situation, such that healthful products are more affordable and unhealthy products are more costly?

Are food stamps an income support program–or as the program’s new name indicates, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program? If it is a “supplemental nutrition” program, then shouldn’t USDA define which products are nutritious based on Institute of Medicine standards, and limit purchases to these products?  USDA does this with the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is widely touted for saving billions in health care costs.

If food stamps are an income support program, and anti-hunger advocates want to maximize poor people’s freedom of choice, then why shouldn’t food stamps be distributed as cash rather than as a debit card good for food purchases? Doesn’t receiving cash maximize a person’s dignity as it bestows trust upon that person that he or she will make the right choice with their money?  Would food stamps not then become a welfare program, and be subject to the negative public perception of welfare?

The real story behind food stamps is that it is neither a nutrition program nor an income support program. It is a massive subsidy for the food retailers, grocery manufacturers, and industrial growers. That is why commodity groups, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute all line up behind the food stamp program every five years when the Farm Bill is being debated. They know the extra buying power food stamps provides to low income Americans will end up in their pockets.

In their noble effort to reduce human suffering and to improve the livelihood of the 41 million Americans on food stamps, anti-hunger advocates are caught in an ever-tightening bind. They frame food stamps as a nutrition program, because a nutrition program has more public support and more powerful allies in Congress than a welfare or income support program. Yet, burgeoning rates of chronic diseases and the growing presence of the public health community as a player in federal food and farm policy, translates into increased accountability for the nutritional impact of the food stamp program.

What boat are both camps missing?

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There is one very important point neither the anti-hunger nor the public health advocates are making. Our tax dollars, especially the $80-90 billion spent annually on federal food programs, are a powerful force in shaping the food system. Food stamps, like school meals and WIC, should be the cornerstone of a food system that is grounded in principles of environmental sustainability, social justice, and health. Directed toward the small farm economy, community-oriented retailers, brokers, and processors, even a modest percentage of these funds could ignite a transformation of our food system.

Consider this. While nationally food stamp recipients are spending $4 BILLION per year on soda, in 2009, only $4 MILLION of food stamps were redeemed at farmers markets. This difference is shaped by the fact that USDA has not equipped farmers markets with free debit card terminals (which are needed to accept food stamp benefits), and prohibited federal nutrition education programs to promote farmers markets. Does this mean the Department of Agriculture values soft drinks one thousand times more than farmers markets?

Mayor Bloomberg has proposed only half the solution. USDA should grant him the waiver he requests if and only if New York City agrees to redirect the $75-$135 million that would have otherwise been spent on soda to programs that encourage food stamp recipients to purchase locally grown foods at farmers markets, community supported agriculture farms, and other community-oriented venues.

Andy Fisher has been a leading force for social justice in the anti-hunger and food movements in the US since the mid 1990s. He co-founded and led the primary American food systems alliance, the Community Food Security Coalition for 17 years. He has played a key role in the growth of farm to school, local food policy, and community food assessments. In 2017, MIT Press published his first book, Big Hunger, which exposed the unholy alliance between corporate America and anti-hunger groups. He has Masters degrees in Environmental Policy and Latin American Studies from UCLA. He is currently the executive director of Eco-Farm. Read more >

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  1. Thank you for doing such a wonderful job of summing up the thorny issues involved in foodstamps and soda and educated me as well.

    You said succinctly exactly what I was trying to tell two Harlem food advocates last night who are concerned with the very choice issues you brought up. I would add two things:

    1. To round out the injustice argument more fully, food stamps are the only area in which the government can dictate what we eat, giving the government "control" over the poor.

    2. You say New York should redirect the money spent on food stamps elsewhere, but the amount of money given in foodstamps won't change, they are just hoping that instead of being spent on soda, it will be spent on healthier choices.

    3. Many have been complaining that instead of this the government should spend on education and other programs. To that I would say, "They already are." Healthy Bucks, those gross-out soda ads on the subway and online, and subsidies for greencarts are all part of a concerted effort. This many just be the most controversial part of a multifaceted effort.
  2. Brett Henderson
    I find myself confused by these arguments. Doesn't the food stamp program have any restrictions on what can be purchased now? Isn't the question should we be enabling bad actions? And my favorite is why doesn't anyone ever make a price comparison to water? We drink a lot of it because it's inexpensive. My grandson seems happy with it.
  3. Government forces can do more than just shape consumer behavior: they can shape retail behavior as well. One of my blog projects involves creating healthy meals from foods that can be found in a food desert - I don't think it's coincidence that most of the foods I've found are on our state WIC lists. Most drugstores carry a number of WIC items. Imagine what would happen to food deserts if there was a SNAP list?

    Two pounds of dried beans cost less than a bag of ramen - and offers 30 healthful servings. Oatmeal offers the same amount of servings for just a little more - but you have to know how to prepare these foods to take advantage of them.
  4. Annie McShiras
    I find this article very compelling and it raises some tough questions.

    My main conflict is this: why should we restrict food choices the poor make but make no impact on the food choices of the rest of the population? I think a policy like the one proposed can easily backfire and turn into a perceived attack on the poor and their food choices.

    To me, the issue at hand is the issue of price. If unhealthy food is cheaper, people will buy it regardless of their income. There are plenty of wealthy elite who buy nothing but soda.

    To really make a difference in everyone's buying habits--not just the poor--we should implement a soda tax as was proposed months ago by the city of New York. It would make soda more expensive and create a disincentive for everyone to buy it--similar to how cigarettes are currently sold.
  5. christoff
    To suggest that government should not have any say in what its funds are used for are ridiculous. There are are already restriction on what can purchased on EBT, currently you can not buy alcohol, tobacco or prepared foods. Poor dietary habits are a major cause of obesity and diabetes in the african american community. The overall cost associated with the sales of soda reach far further than the dignity of personal choice argument. Tell me, where is the dignity in being on dialysis of the resulting amputations that arise from diabetes?
  6. Solo500
    Your points about food stamps subsidizing crappy industrial “food” are right. However, farmer’s markets are NOT the place to stretch one’s food budget and they are a hassle to boot. Even for members of the educated middle class, forget about the situations that many users of food stamps find themselves in.

    Better to include a map of the local Chinatown markets where bulk items of cheap stuff are readily available. Hong Kong Supermarket accepts the food debit cards!
  7. Brie
    Great article. What a complex and difficult issue. "Why are anti-hunger advocates in the absurdly precarious position of protecting the right of poor people to drink soda?" Absurd, and perplexing, indeed. Food stamps don't allow the purchase of alcoholic beverages, so why should they allow soda, a product that has a detrimental effect on health? Do the same anti-hunger advocates want to defend the purchase of alcohol as a matter of choice and dignity?

    At the risk of sounding pedantic or "patronizing" (as some of these advocates might claim), perhaps the program should help guide people about which foods actually are nutritious, at a time when much of that "eduction" has been taken over by food industry marketing. The cries of "nanny state" only defend that industry and government policies and subsidies that are making so many people sick.
  8. cass
    government dedicated to "strong libraries and museums that conneI have heard it said that as long as the gov is giving out the food stamps , then they have the right to decide what poor people eat or drink. I have also heard people complain about its their tax dollars so poor kids don't need pop. It goes beyond our freedom in this country and it goes right back to greed. When we meet our maker we can say hey I didn't mind Wake Forest University Study on how Monkeys react under the influence of cocaine. This project received $144,541 in Stimulus funds , but you know i didn't want a poor child to have a pop after all its not good for them. I understand that we pollute the world and all but really if I had a case of pop I would not want to share it with a poor kid cus after all I bought it. Bull crap its not pop making our kids FAT, its all the video games n tvs in their rooms n even these computers. Its Moms n dads working and being to tired to cook dinner so stopping at a fast food place or pizza place or any take out place. But poor kids can't have soda if its not good for them. How about all the meat recalls in this country or egg recalls. And for those that claim its their tax dollar, well go right ahead n decide and be the judge of what poor kids can have n not have , because a BIG BIG percentage of your tax dollar does NOT go to feeding the poor. Most states take in more then they give out. They collect child support over what they give , so think again. Your tax dollars are wasted in fact, but not on feeding poor children. Shame on us!!training Classes for Casino Workers
    Good casino workers are hard to find in the Kansas City area, according to the Departments of Labor and Education. Both federal departments teamed up this year and gave $784,000 in grants to the Kansas City Kansas Community College for a new training program geared to assist workers that may seek employment in a nearby planned casino.Bridging the Generational Gap with Nintendo Wii
    Indiana ($3,905) The Institute of Museums and Library Sciences, an arm of the federal ct people to information and ideas," awarded a grant to Westfield Washington Public Library for the purchase of "a Nintendo Wii console, tv, camcorder and games." And people with money do buy pop. Its a mean mean world we live in when we decide what a poor child can has verses another, and use the EXCUSE its not good for them. There are way to many things on this earth that are not good for them to be worried over a soda pop.
  9. Karen
    I think one of the best quotes I've come across so far regarding this issue is: "Poor people just want to eat what everyone else eats. And what everyone else eats is horrible." The health and environmental crises that our horrible food is creating go so much further than whether we should be restricting the choices of the poor. We should be changing the availability and desirability of nutritious, ethically and sustainably produced food. The poor just want to eat what everyone else eats - so stop subsidizing the horrible food everyone else eats and introduce a more intelligent diet to the American public.
  10. Justin
    You can't buy cigarettes or alcohol with food stamps because they are products that are harmful to your health. Soda IS harmful to your health, despite the rants by Cass above. Yes, wealthy people choose to buy soda, but they also choose to buy alcohol and cigarettes. That still doesn't make it right. I support this effort. Unhealthy food in this country is so much cheaper to produce, which makes it cheaper to buy, which is why they make it cheaply because then more people will buy. I'm sure the profit margin on soda is much more than on OJ - you don't have mother nature affecting your crop prices. Corn syrup can be made regardless of frost damage to the produce behind the product. I would love to see the data on the rate of diabetes and other health issues if this goes into effect. The results should be presented to congress and the American people. Then we might see some real progress.
  11. Charmaine
    I find the tone of comments on this blog patronising and offensive to say the least. You cannot decide what people can eat based on their status in society. You can educate and advise but trying to blame the poor for present and future health demands is idiocy! Americans are raised to expect complete constitutional freedoms in all matters and you are raised to believe each one of you can do exactly as they please with impunity...except for the poor?! I think not! Self righteous human rights abuse from the well off and priviledged members of society towards the needy. Poor people need self respect and self esteem not labels, they need help and encouragement not to be talked about as if they are all mentally deficient. People who have no idea how to handle food can be encouraged to maximise nutrition on a very low budget by being taught how to buy and cook nutritious food on limited budgets. Education not critisizm!
  12. PF
    The government should not be in the business of subsidizing unhealthy behavior that adds more financial burden to the system; the fact that independent citizens get to commit nutritional suicide is irrelevant. Let it be a nutritional support program, and get the gov to sponsor the producers of nutritional food rather than laboratory syrup and styrofoam.
  13. GoneWithTheWind
    I disagree with a soda tax and I think the reference to the cigarette tax was a mistake. The only things cigarette taxes accomplish is to give the government more money to waste and use irresponsibly AND to make the poor poorer. If cigarettes are SO bad (and they are) WHY would we keep selling them?
    Soda on the other hand is not harmful and the only reason to tax soda is to give the government more money to waste and use irresponsibly. We should be reducing the government size and budget not bloating it. The biggest problem of obesity in this country is our governments bloated obesity. Soda's neither harm nor help anyone. They simply are not worth your anger and misplaced desire to control other people's lives.
  14. Mike
    Cigarette taxing and the subsequent revenues being directed towards anti-smoking campaigns have significantly reduced the number of smokers in the United States.
  15. Rebecca
    This weekend the Toledo (Ohio) Farmers' Market started a program where Food Stamps were doubled, up to $20 per week, if used at the Farmers' Market. Unfortunately it wasn't well-participated but the funding is good for a year so with more outreach, it will strengthen next year.
  16. April
    It is also important to note that a poor person also is often forced to shop out of convenience. They don't have a car, or bus fare, or the time after work to get to a farmer's market, the way they can get to the gas station or grocery store. We need to make sure need a system overhaul that allows grocery stores to offer affordable, local produce too. Just farmers markets won't be enough, as much as I love them.
  17. Sophie
    This is an important point that needs to be discussed and circulated more widely among the public. It is true that poor people should have some choice and should not be treated as inferior because of their economic standing, but at the same time I completely agree with your statement: “Food stamps, like school meals and WIC, should be the cornerstone of a food system that is grounded in principles of environmental sustainability, social justice, and health.” What better way to sum up the entire issue discussed here but to state this fundamental idea that because SNAP is a government program and therefore sponsored by taxpayers, it should maintain certain principles.

    The WIC program that you mention has been very successful in maintaining these principles; indeed, it is a walking example of what the SNAP program should be. According to the USDA, health care costs of WIC participants have dropped noticeably because of the nutritional aspect of the program. The USDA estimates that every dollar that WIC participants spend saves them about three dollars in future health care costs. So while the prices of locally grown food or food purchased at farmer’s markets may be higher, as other comments have pointed out there are cheap, healthy alternatives AND these choices will save them money in the future. Whether we choose to accept it currently or not, the food we eat now has a direct influence on our health in the future, as shown by the information on the USDA website.

    I could not agree more with your last paragraph. The key to eating healthy and sustainably is buying locally grown produce, and I think that the SNAP program, as a government and therefore taxpayer supported program, should make sure to acknowledge these facts. As a government, we should not support the mass produced and fossil fuel producing methods that mainstream, faceless grocery stores use. Just because those who can afford to choose to make the wrong choices sometimes does not mean that we should support other people making the same, wrong choices.
  18. Becky
    Andy, I think you raise some excellent points regarding this complex issue. This is not just a political or health issue but moreover extends to the realm of morality and philosophy. This issue speaks to the question of the role of government and how we as a society treat the least fortunate among us.
    There is the reality of social classes based on economic disparity and there is the reality that the lowest of these classes receive money from the government to buy some (not enough) food. Given these two variables, to what extent should the government intervene in the manner by which these allocated funds are used? As several other comments have noted, it is true that indeed the government has already placed restrictions on food stamps—they cannot be used for alcohol, cigarettes, or hot, prepared meals to note a few. So, is it then beyond the scope of the federal government to add soda to this list?
    I think the two opposing poles of this issue are succinctly stated in these two quotes from your article:
    1) “The anti-hunger community is correct that historically, as a nation, we have treated the poor paternalistically.”
    2) ““On the other hand, public health groups are dead-on accurate that it is irresponsible public policy to be subsidizing with tax dollars the purchase of unhealthy products that will burden society with increased health care costs in the future.”
    You pit these two advocacy groups against one another, each raising important concerns. However I think the crux of this problem is embodied by a subsequent question, which you yourself ask: “Why does it cost Coca-Cola more to produce a half-gallon of orange juice than a half gallon of Coke? How do we reverse this situation, such that healthful products are more affordable and unhealthy products are more costly?”
    This is the question that not only afflicts SNAP recipients but all consumers of the deficient American food-system. Our energies as food activists might be better served by looking to resolve such inquiries in the long-term. Yes, it is true that reversing this situation cannot happen overnight and we may very well still need to deal with such conflicting issues as whether to tax soda or forbid the most impoverished Americans from purchasing soda with tax dollars. However, if we as a nation can successfully and sustainably answer to these provocative questions, this is not a dilemma we will need to grapple with for it will no longer be relevant.
  19. Rabble
    "Food stamps, like school meals and WIC, should be the cornerstone of a food system that is grounded in principles of environmental sustainability, social justice, and health.”

    Really? I went to public schools (albeit in a middle class suburb) and the meals were limited to hot dogs, hamburgers, and white bread. All unhealthy, heavily-subsidized / surplus corporate crap.

    The WIC program limits what individuals can buy, and not in favor of "healthy" choices. In many places, organic produce or grains are off-limits. Infant formula and sugary cereals are subsidized.

    My old neighborhood co-op was forced to carry conventional produce and General Mills products in order to cater to WIC recipients.

    I work in the natural foods industry. So does my partner and most of our friends. As a result, we are very low-income and SNAP-eligible.

    Where are the voices of low-income individuals, WIC recipients, and food stamp recipients? We KNOW these programs are flawed- but more importantly, our food systems are unjust and unsustainable. We need to challenge these systems! We do not need a bunch of "experts" and patronizing yuppies wringing their hands over our choices.
  20. Great article. One point which I think is lacking, as was brought up by some comments, nutrition education among SNAP participants. This has been happening for well over a decade with large and active nutrition networks. In CA, our network is coordinated by the state Department of Public Health which funds hundreds of local programs to conduct nutrition education to low-income audiences.

    As far as the soda ban, I am 100% in favor of it. *We already provide SNAP and WIC participants and retailers with guidelines, this would just be another one.
    *I don't buy the slippery slope argument that this can only lead to more restrictions.
    *It is crucial that we create food environments that are able to support the nutritional needs of the poor (and everyone else) so that people can actually make the healthy food choices we invest heavily in promoting.
    *I feel the need to bring up the argument that calling carbonated water mixed with processed sugar "food" is quite a stretch of the definition.
  21. Juliet
    I think this is a great idea. And really, if it was enacted, we're not saying that people who use food stamps CAN'T buy soda...they just need to use another source of income to buy it, if they really want it.

    I also love how people are turning this into "You can't tell people what to do just because of their socio-economic status, it's just not right". Um, that's NOT why we're trying to protect their health. We're trying to limit their non-nutritious high-fructose dietary intake because a) it kills, b) when they get sick, we have to pay for that too, and c) it's soda, they'll live without it. Plus, I think it's pretty damn unfair that I pay taxes and struggle to make ends meet each month, and consequently almost never drink soda because I can't afford it (I fill up my water bottles at public water fountains instead), and yet people are getting their panties in a bunch about protecting the rights of people to slowly kill themselves AND enjoy things that other contributing Americans don't? Just doesn't seem right to me.
  22. Linda Franckowiak
    With all the problems this country faces, and you are worried about SODA.....Please...... Do you think that most of the people on food stamps want to be on food stamps, and do you think we have little intelligence that we need the government telling us what we can and cannot eat or drink....Stick to the real problems.....Like the housing market...It's not going to matter much what I drink if I don't have a home to keep in in.....Really shame on you!
  23. Tony Caprice
    Who the heck considers soda a food anyhow ?! Do you all know raw phosphoric acid (pop ingredient) will burn through your skin in a few seconds?
  24. Jean M. White
    When I don't have motivation to squeeze a lime or lemon for a drink at mealtime or buttermilk, I have resorted (belatedly) to just drinking water. Our City of Raleigh, NC water is excellent. Of course one is more apt to crave a carbonated sweet drink when not consuming a balance of nutritious protein, fat and carbohydrate foods regularly.

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