Banning Soda.

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.


Fur coating and shit.

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  • I can clearly remember grocery store cashiers screening purchases made by patrons using food stamps when I was a kid in the 70’s. Sodas were on the “no-no” list along with sugary cereals. Today – here in California, I see fast food restaurants with signs that read, “EBT Cards Accepted Here” – the modern version of food stamps. The arguement is that homeless people who use food stamps don’t have access to kitchens & healthy food storage – but should still have access to a hot meal.

    I agree that the paternalism aspect of the proposal is a bit much. However, if people are feeding their familes with food stamps – shouldn’t the government try and steer people towards healthier choices? Or is that too much of a nanny state?

    • I think the government should try to steer everyone toward better nutrition by creating better policy that makes bad food relatively more expensive but good food relatively less so. but since the federal government isn’t going to stop subsidizing corn production any time soon, and since HFCS is going to continue to be a really cheap way to make soft drinks sweet and bad for you, i think soda taxes that make everyone curb their consumption, at the same time that it raises revenue, is the way to go.

      But i think all banning the use of food stamps for certain products does is feed into the notion that poor people make poor decisions with government money. By and large, I’d guess that people aren’t using their food stamps just to buy soda and ice cream. And who cares if they do occasionally? Robbing food-stamp recipients of their agency isn’t the way to change behavior, especially since that behavior is society-wide and is influenced by already existing governmental policy.

  • VC

    If it were about nutrition, the U.S. could do something that affects everyone like ban high fructose corn syrup. To make it about tax dollars is ridiculous and contempt-inspiring for people who are already wrongly angry at recipients of any kind of public assistance. Soda’s bad for everyone, regardless of how you’re acquiring it. I see the value in restricting people with food stamps from buying alcohol, but a restriction on soda? It’s a superfluous purchase that, in my opinion, goes hand in hand with most of the food in the middle of the grocery store.

  • young_

    I don’t understand the controversy here or the relevance of the negative stereotypes about the consumption habits of welfare/food-stamp recipients (have any conservatives ever complained about families using their food stamps for soda?) The government’s policy is a small step designed to advance legitimate public health objectives, so more power to them.

    • April

      But that’s the problem: it’s not advancing anything. No one is being banned from buying soda outright; this proposal basically is just shifting dollars (use *that* money to buy soda, not *this* money). And I personally think it’s pretty hypocritical and unrealistic to expect one segment of the public to maintain better diet habits than everyone else. I don’t see Bloomberg giving up soda.

      • young_

        Your first point shows that the policy change is not as much of an imposition on poor people as some folks suggest– people who really want soda can still buy it, just not with food stamps, which exist for the sole purpose of providing access to nutrients and sustenance to people in need. However, some people will undoubtedly substitute other, healthier, food-stamp eligible beverages in lieu of soda, and I don’t see why that’s a bad thing.

        As far as it being hypocritical– I think that’s already inherent to most forms of in-kind government relief. Just like the government doesn’t allow people to use food stamps for alcohol (Or non-food products for that matter. If we really didn’t want government paternalism or double-standards, all relief to families in need would be in straight cash, with no strings attached).

  • I’m of two minds on this as well, but considering that health outcomes for those in the working class or below are already awful, I can’t go at Bloomberg too hard for this. Does it need to be comprehensive? Yes. Do we need to stop subsidizing corn? Absolutely. But neither of those things means we shouldn’t try & nudge folks in the right direction. The taxpayer money argument is DOA with me. I’m more concerned with the health outcomes of poor folk. I do understand that poor eating habits are symptom & not a cause though. I’m NOT 100% behind it & I understand the opposition to it, but I just can’t get that riled up over it.

  • Tabitha

    I don’t understand how the government is allowed to dictate what women buy for their children and families using WIC but not people using Food Stamps. i know it’s not popular to say and someone is going to ask me for some data but- in MY OPINION, poor people do make bad choices when it comes to food purchases. i think that has to do with education and an understanding of better options…i think that there can be regulation (if it’s coupled with education) in this area just as there is regulation and education with the dispensing of WIC. better food choices for people receiving Food Stamps can translate into stronger families that don’t rely so heavily on the health care system for preventable illnesses associated with obesity. yes, i am aware that it’s a stretch but how can educating people to make smarter choices and restricting bad ones be wrong?

    • April

      Oops, should have replied here. But also, I don’t think education is really the problem here. Have you seen the food options in impoverished neighborhoods? There’s an abundance of junk and a scarcity of nutritious food. So it’s not surprising that over-processed food wins the day in many lower-income households.

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