by Marion Nestle
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?

  • Cathy Richards

    It would have to be a pretty inclusive list — think of all the cultural/ethnic variations in they types of food families choose.

    Practically speaking – how would grocery clerks have the time to check a very long list of foods allowed, vs. a shorter list of foods not allowed?

    And would the list be influenced by lobbyists, funders, etc (almost all of which will have food or agricultural tie ins)?

  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    This sounds like an awesome plan! At least give it a test run in NYC for a couple years. It would be very interesting to see what effect it has on food purchases–like if data could be obtained that people were purchasing a similar amount of soda, but just using cash for it.

    The positive influence of the program in MI also sounds incredible. It is great to promote local farmers DIRECTLY and the probability that people will be buying more produce. I hope there is a good cooking class set up in connection with this. Cooperative Extension!

    “Slippery Slope” I hear this one a lot and it overlooks a huge problem: obesity. It’s becoming a more frequent and more severe problem, what this country has done so far HAS NOT WORKED. If we keep the same attitude and minimal changes, we’ll see minimal results. Why would we expect anything different? The other very important thing industry people are not willing to admit is that Sugar Sweetened Beverages when consumed are like bonus calories, the human body doesn’t recognize that it just drank 100, 200 or more calories from a soda. Those bonus calories can and do add much weight to the overall population. It is a huge difference in realizing that sugary sodas (liquid candy) only add calories and are otherwise nutritionally bankrupt, and a known culprit contributing to obesity since the human body doesn’t recognize those liquid calories, versus a good/bad food judgment system that is much grayer. Sorry slippery slope people, but Public Health is too important to sit back and do nothing with this approach.

  • But it IS a slippery slope. If you prohibit the purchase of sodas and other sweetened drinks on the rationale that it makes people fat, where does it stop? Sugar makes people fat, so does excess carbohydrate consumption, excess fat consumption, excess dairy. So, where does it take us? People on food stamps are ultimately prohibited from purchasing bread, milk, butter, and meat? They are only allowed to purchase strictly controlled portions of food based on their caloric needs on a weekly basis, and only fruits and vegetables, whole grains?

    How about making fresh, whole foods available in urban areas? Here in Texas, people on food stamps can use them at the farmers’ market, and we have a burgeoning FM culture in Austin that makes such entities accessible to those without access to transportation.

    Prohibiting sweetened drinks is a band-aid. The real problem is systemic oppression of the poor.

  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    Is it an entitlement to allow people to have carbonated sugar water?

    I think not.

    There are of course many other problems with society, including oppression of the poor, but disallowing public assistance food money to be squandered on soda isn’t hurting anyone.

  • No one said anything about entitlement. This is — broadly speaking — an issue of social justice.

  • I feel that food stamps should only be used to buy food that person has to prepare on a stove not a microwave because most frozen meals,pizzas and etc. contain too much salt. Also I also feel that they should put a limit not only on sodas but also on all sugary snacks and salty snacks and band any candy of any sort to be purchased. This programme was design to help families not hurt them.

  • JMCat

    All this outrage over food stamp recipients being denied soda is silly. Look, any time you receive assistance, there are limits to it. If we KNOW that item X is an especially big contributor to obesity and/or diabetes, why should our tax dollars be used to feed it to the people most at risk of developing those conditions? It ends up costing all of society more in the long run. The quickest way to change behavior is not education, it’s taking the bad option away.

    I wouldn’t say that limiting a group’s chances of developing obesity and diabetes is systematic oppression–it’s a tad paternalistic, but it’s obviously well-intentioned. I don’t really see a downside to it, unless you care about soda companies’ profits.

  • Henry

    Banning the use of food stamps on sodas sounds good in theory. However, generic soda brands and other alternatives that is basically colored water and sugar is cheap enough to purchase even while using food stamps. There is a tax imposed on where I live (Philadelphia) in order to discourage people from purchasing sodas in order to reduce obesity. Does it work? I don’t think so.

    Instead of banning this and not allowing that, why not allow the use of food stamps to purchase approved prepared meals. This ensures proper healthy meals. The main problem will be solving location issues of those approved vendors of the meals.

  • Here’s a link to ERS/USDA resources about using food stamps to affect diet:
    And a very interesting article with great graphics showing lookinga t actual obesity rates of people on food stamps vs. the rest of the population:

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  • Nancy Dunne

    The name of the program is Supplemental NUTRITION Assistance Program [emphasis added]. There is no nutritional value to soda, therefore it should not be paid for with program funds. It should be that simple. Leave the politics out of it please.

  • Ben

    That’s a great idea, except obviously it would have to be the other way around. Make their food benefits worth half as much when they buy soda. That will benefit the retailer who gets paid twice as much and the customer who won’t buy as much soda and it won’t hurt the soda companies as bad as it would if food stampers couldn’t buy their soda.