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Tensions Bubble Over Ban on Soda with Food Stamps

Monday, December 13, 2010

Imagine, just for a moment, you are a mother who cannot afford to regularly put enough food on the table. You rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, better known as food stamps, to purchase groceries each month. You are looking for orange juice. But orange juice can cost upward of $5 a gallon. Orange-colored sugar water, on the other hand, is less than $2 a gallon. So you might pick that up instead. In a few months, however, low-income New York City households that use food stamps may not have that option.

In his latest push against childhood obesity, Mayor Michael Bloomberg requested a waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture last month to authorize a two-year demonstration project that would ban the purchase of soda and other sugary beverages with food stamps in New York City. Bloomberg is supporting the ban in an effort to combat childhood obesity in low-income communities.

However, the proposed waiver has sparked debate among experts. “From a public health standpoint, such a ban may encourage people to use limited resources to buy healthier foods,” says Julia Kehoe, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. “However, other advocates are concerned that a restriction to the benefit is overly paternalistic and serves to vilify low-income people.” They say there are other ways to encourage low-income people to buy healthier foods, such as the Healthy Incentives Pilot in Massachusetts.

The ban would apply to any beverage that contains more than 10 calories per 8-ounce serving, with the exception of milk and fruit juices that do not contain added sugar. Soda has about 150 calories per 8-ounce serving. The American Heart Association identifies sugar-sweetened beverages as the single largest source of added sugar in the American diet. Every 20-ounce serving of sugar-sweetened beverages contains almost 17 teaspoons of sugar. Health experts believe that children who consume excessive amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages are at higher risk of obesity and related diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and early cardiovascular disease.

“It’s very important that our children, who have this very high incidence now of obesity and all sorts of potential illnesses that will mar them for life, become much more aware of what’s good for them,” says John Fox, Professor of Complex Organizations at Mount Holyoke College.

If the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorizes the proposed waiver, the choice between orange juice and orange-colored sugar water will be predetermined for the 1.7 million recipients of food stamps in New York City.

Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH), Joel Berg agrees that the nutritional value in soda and other sugary beverages is minimal. “I wouldn’t recommend people having it,” says Berg. “But saying to low-income people that you’re the only ones in the city who cannot buy soda is wrong.” Berg and others who oppose the ban contend that low-income parents may be aware that soda and other sugary beverages are fraught with empty calories and lack nutritional value for their children, but healthier food choices may be too expensive for them to purchase on a budget. “[Food stamp] recipients already feel their lives are restricted and micro-managed,” says Berg.

Berg has urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reject Bloomberg’s proposed waiver. In a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Berg wrote: “This request violates the law, restricts freedom, and criminalizes hunger by eliminating the ability of low-income [people] to even occasionally obtain sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Supporters of the ban, however, argue that recipients of food stamps can purchase such products with their own resources. “I don’t think they’ll end up never drinking soft drinks,” says Fox. “I think they will have some soft drinks. But they don’t have to have [soft drinks] with food stamps.”

In Massachusetts, the Department of Transitional Assistance has taken a different approach to address childhood obesity in low-income communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently selected Hampden County in Massachusetts to implement the Healthy Incentives Pilot, a demonstration program that will encourage low-income families to purchase more fruits and vegetable with their food stamps through incentives.

A sample of 7,500 Hampden County households that use food stamps to purchase groceries will participate in the program. For every dollar spent on fruits and vegetables, these households will receive an additional 30 cents in food stamps. The demonstration program will launch in December.

“I believe that providing incentives [for purchasing healthier foods] is often more effective than restrictions,” says Commissioner Kehoe.