New York City has asked the USDA if it can ban the purchase of soda for people participating in SNAP (the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps). Here’s an editorial by Thomas Farley and Richard F. Daines, the New York City and New York state health commissioners, respectively (emphasis added):
This policy change would be entirely in keeping with existing standards for defining what is and isn’t nutritious. The Agriculture Department itself has already rightly declared sugar-sweetened beverages to be “foods of minimal nutritional value.”
I’m of two minds on this. The USDA is right — sodas have no nutritional value. They don’t satiate you, and the sugar and calories they provide would be better coming from any other source. I should also add, the ban would only include regular sodas, not diet sodas, which is ridiculous (yes, diet does mean 0 calories, but diet soda is just as nutritionally worthless). So in banning soda, NYC would not be depriving anyone of anything, nutritionally speaking.
But we all know food is not just about nutrition. Again, from the Times article (emphasis added):
In 2004, the Agriculture Department denied a request by Minnesota to prevent food-stamp recipients from buying junk food. The department said that the plan, which focused on candy and soda, among other foods, was based on questionable merits and would “perpetuate the myth” that food-stamp users made poor shopping decisions.
And from Farley and Daines (emphasis added):
The city’s proposed program would not reduce participants’ food stamp benefits or their ability to feed their families a nutritionally adequate diet. They would still receive every penny of support they now get, meaning they would have as much, if not more, to spend on nutritious food. And they could still purchase soda if they chose — just not with taxpayer dollars.
“Not with taxpayer dollars?” As Ta-Nehisi writes, “there will always be some kind of paternalism at work in the social safety net.” This is the kind of paternalism that bothers me. With that statement, I think Farley and Daines are playing into the “poor people make bad shopping decisions” stereotype. I drink the occasional soda. I’m willing to bet a lot of the readers here do as well. Across the board, Americans of all income levels are drinking too much soda. I understand the need to effectively manage tax dollars, but we can do it in a way that doesn’t completely remove agency from SNAP recipients, and in a way that doesn’t come across as “I can afford it, so I can drink all the soda I want, but I don’t want you spending my tax dollars to buy soda.” A lot of this speaks to the way we see lower-income earners in this country; it’s less that you’re down on your luck, and more that you just “aren’t working hard enough.”
Pardon the pun, but I think we need more carrot and less stick. Marion Nestle is advocating for doubling the value of food stamps used to buy “fresh (or single ingredient frozen) fruits and vegetables.” I don’t think telling people what to eat and what not to (and make no mistake, hunger is very real in this country, and food stamps can be the sole source of food, or even income for many) is the answer.