by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-stamps

May 1 2011

San Francisco Chronicle: Food Stamps and Sodas

My monthly (first-Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle continues the conversation about use of food stamps to buy sodas.

Food stamps should not be valid for soda purchases

Q: When I see people in grocery stores using food stamp benefits to buy sodas, I get upset. Why does the government allow this?

A: My quick answer is lobbying, but discomfort about whether welfare benefits should permit the poor to eat as badly as those who are better off dates back to the English Poor Laws of the 16th century.

New York City’s proposed pilot project banning the use of food stamps for buying sugary sodas is only the latest event in this long and complicated history.

Welfare policies have always been designed to give the poor just enough to keep them off the streets, but not enough to induce dependency. The tension between these goals has resulted in scanty benefits – and endless debates.

Today, the debit cards provided by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can be used for all foods with these exceptions: alcoholic beverages, pet foods, nutrient supplements and on-site prepared foods.

New York’s proposal to add sodas to the “can’t buy” list is based on evidence linking sugary sodas to obesity, their lack of nutritional value, and estimates that SNAP recipients spend $75 million to $135 million in city benefits each year.

The proposed ban does not stop SNAP recipients from buying sodas. They just won’t be able to use SNAP benefits for them.

Soda companies strongly oppose this idea, of course, but so do many advocates for the poor. Advocates argue that the restrictions are insensitive and condescending in assuming that the poor are uniquely unable to make sensible dietary decisions.

The real problem, they correctly point out, is that low-income Americans – with or without SNAP benefits – cannot afford to buy healthy foods or do not have access to them.

As a result of such arguments, I have long been uncomfortable with the idea of the soda ban. But in recent months, I have come to support it. Here’s why:

Evidence is strong that sugary drinks predispose to obesity, and obesity rates are higher among low-income households. In New York City, for example, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are twice as prevalent among the poorest households compared with the wealthiest. Preliminary evidence suggests that sugars in liquid form may especially predispose to obesity.

Overall, soda companies have worked hard to create an environment in which drinking sugary beverages all day is normal. They lobby to introduce and retain vending machines in schools. As sales in the United States have declined, they increasingly market their products to people in developing countries.

They put millions of dollars to work fighting soda taxes and, no doubt, the proposed SNAP ban.

I’m impressed by the comparison of the SNAP approach, which allows benefits to be used for most foods, to that of the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. The USDA runs both programs. WIC, the most demonstrably nutritionally successful of all food assistance programs, allows benefits to be used only for a restricted number of nutrient-rich foods.

In 2010, SNAP benefits went to more than 40 million people at a total cost of more than $68 billion. We need to focus on finding ways to make healthful foods more affordable and accessible to low-income families – doubling the value of SNAP benefits when used for fruits and vegetables, for example, or promoting incentives to move grocery stores, and community gardens into inner-city areas.

Still, soft drink companies have had a free ride for decades.

I hope the USDA will approve New York’s proposed ban.

 

Apr 30 2011

Soda industry vs. NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban

Today’s New York Times carries a piece by Robert Pear on soda industry opposition to NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits to buy sugary drinks.

My first-Sunday monthly column for the San Francisco Chronicle is on precisely the same topic.  I will post it tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s what the Times says about how the soda industry is organizing opposition:

While the American Beverage Association has led the opposition, the fight demonstrates how various parts of the food industry have united to thwart the mayor’s proposal. Beverage industry lobbyists have worked with the Snack Food Association, the National Confectioners Association, which represents candy companies, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents 26,000 retail food stores, as well as antihunger groups like the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America.

But here’s how the strategies play out in practice:

Eighteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently urged the Obama administration to reject New York’s proposal. The plan is unfair to food stamp recipients because it treats them differently from other customers, they said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

While Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are among the largest contributors to the nonpartisan Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a research and education institute, caucus members say their positions are not influenced by such contributions.

See my Food Matters column tomorrow for how I view all this.

Apr 16 2011

Some thoughts on not using food stamps for sodas

This morning I received an e-mail query from Jan Poppendieck, author of three truly outstanding books that I often use in classes:

Q.  I am collecting opinions on the proposal to ban use of SNAP (food stamp) funds for buying sodas.  What do you think of that idea?

A.  I started out deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the soda ban but I now support it.   The discomfort came from my general discomfort with telling people what I think they should be eating. I never comment on what individuals eat (and I hope you won’t comment on what I eat). My work deals with nutrition for populations, not necessarily individuals. So banning sodas at first seemed to me to be too personal an approach.

But I changed my mind for several reasons:

  • The increasingly strong evidence that sugary drinks predispose to obesity
  • The disproportionately higher rates of obesity among the poor
  • The suggestive evidence that sugars in liquid form are especially predisposing to obesity
  • The comparison of the SNAP approach (the benefits can be used for most any food) with that of WIC (the benefits only work for a restricted number of foods)
  • The focus of soda companies on marketing to children and youth in low-income areas
  • The lack of grocery stores in low-income areas
  • The intense marketing of sodas to children and youth in developing countries
  • The increasingly successful efforts of soda companies to co-opt health professional groups with partnerships, alliances, and grants
  • The astonishing amount of money and effort used by beverage companies and associations to fight soda taxes and, no doubt, this idea as well

Soft drink companies have gotten a free ride for years.  They moved into schools and created an environment that makes it socially acceptable for children to drink sodas all day long.  If sodas are now under scrutiny for their role in obesity, it is because soda companies are reaping what they have sown.

 

 

Dec 11 2010

Food stamp use and cost up sharply since 2008

The USDA has just posted shocking increases in the use and cost of food stamps (now called the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP just within the last two years.  The USDA data & statistics web pages provide data for SNAP participation and costs from 1969-2010.

Here’s what’s happened in the last three years:

  • 2008: 28.2 million participants received an average benefit of $102 per month for a total cost of $37.6 billion.
  • 2009: 33.5 million participants received an average benefit of $125 per month for a total cost of $53.6 billion.
  • 2010: 40.3 million participants received an average benefit of $134 per month for a total cost of $68.2 billion.

Caroline Scott-Thomas of FoodNavigator.com points out that in 2009 eligible people were signing up for SNAP benefits at an average rate of 20,000 a day.  This year, the rate increased to 22,000 a day.

What, she asked, did I think of all this?

Nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “Pretty obviously, this is a sign that the economy is still in bad shape, especially at the lower income ends. Wall Street may still be giving bonuses, but more and more Americans don’t have places to live or food to eat”….Nestle added that funding for this level of food stamp use could prove unsustainable in the current economy. “Some funding has already been cannibalized to fund the Child Nutrition Reauthorization,” she said. “The more expensive it gets, the more the program will be a target for lawmakers looking for moveable cash.”

With an estimated one-eighth of the population on food stamps each month, and no improvement to the economy in sight, it seems like there is plenty to worry about.

Oct 9 2010

Reprint from Civil Eats: Andy Fisher on Food Stamps vs. sodas

The most thoughtful comments I’ve seen on the proposal to block food stamp recipients from buying sodas come from Andy Fisher’s post on Civil Eats.

Mr. Fisher is currently a Kellogg Food and Society Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.  He is the Co-Founder/Executive Director of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC).

I have added the red-highlighted emphases:

Banning Soda for Food Stamps’ Recipients Raises Tough Questions

October 8th, 2010  By Andy Fisher

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 US 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 ounces) 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?

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?

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.

Oct 7 2010

New York City says no to using Food Stamps for sodas

New York City is serious about trying to reduce rates of obesity and the expensive and debilitating conditions for which obesity raises risks.  Its latest move?  It is asking the USDA for a Food Stamp waiver for two years during which recipients would not be allowed to use their benefit cards to buy sodas.

I hardly know where to begin on this one.  I learned about this from the front page of this morning’s New York Times and from reading the accompanying op-ed by city Health Commissioner Tom Farley and New York State Health Commissioner Richard Daines.

This is an old, old idea that has been consistently rejected by USDA and by public health advocates for the poor.  It is based on the commonly held notion—never conclusively demonstrated by independent data—that recipients of Food Stamps (now called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)–make worse food choices than everyone else.

New York City, according to the Times account, has 1.7 million people who receive SNAP benefits.  The rationale for banning soda purchases?

City statistics released last month showed that nearly 40 percent of public-school children in kindergarten through eighth grade were overweight or obese, and that obesity rates were substantially higher in poor neighborhoods. City studies show that consumption of sugared beverages is consistently higher in those neighborhoods….Anticipating such criticism, Dr. Farley and Dr. Daines said that the food-stamp program already prohibited the use of benefits to buy cigarettes, beer, wine, liquor or prepared foods.

The op-ed points out:

Every year, tens of millions of federal dollars are spent on sweetened beverages in New York City through the food stamp program — far more than is spent on obesity prevention. This amounts to an enormous subsidy to the sweetened beverage industry.

I asked for data on soda purchases by New York City SNAP recipients, and was sent the city’s waiver request to USDA:

An estimated $75 to $135 million dollars of SNAP funds were spent on sweetened beverages in New York City (NYC) alone in 2009 [Based on Nielsen beverage market data for 2009, the prevalence of SNAP participants in NYC, and prior studies of SNAP purchasing behavior].   This use of federal funds to purchase a group of products that are leading contributors to the diabetes and obesity epidemics (and whose extensive consumption contradicts the USDA’s own recommended dietary guidelines) far outstrips current federal funding for prevention of these health problems.

I am, as readers of this blog well know, no fan of sodas.   If people want to do something about controlling body weight, the best place to begin is by cutting out sodas.  Soft drinks contain sugars and, therefore, calories, but nothing else.  As the Center for Science in the Public Interest has long maintained, sodas are liquid candy.   And I am on record as favoring soda taxes (see previous posts) as a strategy to discourage use, especially among young people.

But if I were in charge of Food Stamps, I would much prefer incentives: make the benefit worth twice as much when spent for fresh (or single-ingredient frozen) fruits and vegetables.

How far will the city get with this request?  I can’t wait to find out.  If you want to watch lobbying in action, keep an eye on this one, as I certainly will.

As for this proposal?

Jun 18 2010

Anti-hunger programs: recent research

The Government Accountability Office has analyzed the current status of food assistance programs in a recent report, “Domestic Food Assistance: Complex System Benefits Millions, but Additional Efforts Could Address Potential Inefficiency and Overlap among Smaller Programs” (GAO-10-346, April 15, 2010).

The GAO says that the prevalence of food insecurity rose to nearly 15 percent (or about 17 million households) in 2008, and that the federal government spent more than $62.5 billion on 18 different food and nutrition assistance programs that year.

Although the programs are poorly coordinated and often overlap, streamlining them is not easy and involves trade offs.  The GAO recommends that USDA:

identify and develop methods for addressing potential inefficiencies among food assistance programs and reducing unnecessary overlap among the smaller programs while ensuring that those who are eligible receive the assistance they need. Approaches may include conducting a study; convening a group of experts…considering which of the lesser-studied programs need further research; or piloting proposed changes.

More research needed!

Fortunately, we have some.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has studied the question of whether food insecurity is linked to obesity.  Past research suggested that it is.

Foundation researchers reviewed studies examining a possible relationship between food insecurity and obesity, and those examining links between federal nutrition assistance programs and an increased risk of obesity.

The report, “Food Insecurity and Risk for Obesity Among Children and Families: Is There a Relationship?, finds no evidence of a direct relationship between food insecurity and obesity.  It also does not find a direct relationship of use of food assistance to obesity.

Food insecurity is linked to a host of physical and mental health problems and it is difficult to distinguish the effects of lack of reliable food from those due to the lack of money, education, transportation, stable housing, and health care also common among low-income households.

Dec 2 2009

An improving economy? Ask people on Food Stamps!

I keep reading that the economy is getting better but I think anyone who says this must be talking about fat cats on Wall Street.   As for everyone else, take a look at the shocking piece about the Food Stamp program that the New York Times ran on its front page on Sunday.

More than 36 million Americans qualify for and get Food Stamps, an increase of 30% or so in just the last two years.  The Food Stamp program, says the Times, helps feed nearly 13% of American adults and 25% of children.

The Food Stamp program, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is one of several food assistance programs run by the USDA.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who meets income eligibility requirements can get benefits.  Even so, only two-thirds of people eligible for the program apply for and get the benefits.  What recipients get is a credit card to use at grocery stores.  The cards were worth an average of $101 per month in 2008 for individuals, and $227 for households.

SNAP participants can use the money to buy foods, seeds, and food plants.  They cannot use the cards for alcohol, tobacco, pet food, supplements, paper goods, or hot prepared foods.

So what’s going on?  Nearly 15% of American households, up a couple of percentage points this year, are considered “food insecure,” meaning that they cannot count on a reliable, legally obtained source of food from one day to the next.  Surprise!  The uptick in SNAP participation exactly parallels the uptick in jobs lost.

What do you have to do to qualify for Food Stamps?  For a family of four, your household must make less than $2,389 per month gross, or $1,838 net and meet certain other requirements.  An individual can’t make more than about $1,000 a month.   These days, 36 million Americans make less than that or otherwise qualify for food assistance, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

This doesn’t look like an improving economy to me.  Or am I missing something?

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