by Marion Nestle
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.

  • As well as improving long term health and supporting local farmers markets research in the UK has shown that for every 100 UK pounds spent with a local business over 90 of those pounds will go back in to the local economy whereas for each 100 UK pounds spent in national or global supermarkets only about 25 of those pounds will be respent locally. So many more dividends for supporting buying local – so much more ecological in every way.

  • Solo500

    Your points about food stamps subsidizing crappy industrial “food” are right. However, farmer’s markets are NOT the place to stretch one’s food budget and they are a hassle to boot. Even for members of the educated middle class, forget about the situations that many users of food stamps find themselves in.

    Better to include a map of the local Chinatown markets where bulk items of cheap stuff are readily available. Hong Kong Supermarket accepts the food debit cards!

  • Ida

    WIC already puts limits on what one can buy. What’s the difference here? The only issue is that soda provides cheap calories. Without junk food could one on foodstamps afford to enough food to keep from going hungry?

  • Paternalism notwithstanding, we should put restrictions on what food stamps will buy. No one is telling poor people they can’t buy soda, and no one is refusing to sell it to them. They simply must use “other” funds to do it.

  • Eric E

    I enjoyed the first half of Fisher’s article as a reasonably balanced look at the issues of NYC’s proposal. However, the last half with his editorial comments missed the mark.

    First, this statement is false: “USDA … prohibited federal nutrition education programs to promote farmers markets.”

    Also, I don’t agree with Fisher’s characterization of food stamps being a “massive subsidy for … industrial growers.” At least not explicitly. This is true implicitly by virtue of the fact that they are the source of most available food and food which is familiar to the majority of consumers. To be fair food stamps are a subsidy for all farmers and food producers to the extent they can get market share. The program does benefit all farmers.

    “food stamp recipients are spending $4 BILLION per year on soda, in 2009, only $4 MILLION of food stamps were redeemed at farmers markets.” Um. Duh. This is not a fault or design of the food stamp program. It is primarily an issue of access and affordability. I agree with Solo’s comment that farmers’ markets are not an effective way to stretch a sparse food budget. Correcting the imbalance is a matter of infrastructure, not food stamp program mandates.

    I strongly disagree with Fisher’s final recommendation to confound the “no soda on food stamps” experiment with the contingency that recipients have explicit encouragement to purchase locally grown foods, etc. Bloomberg’s proposal is brilliantly posited as an experiment wherein one variable is changed. If other variables are changed, it reduces the ability to draw conclusions from the results.

  • The World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest projections indicate that globally in 2005:

    approximately 1.6 billion adults (age 15+) were overweight;
    at least 400 million adults were obese.

    WHO further projects that by 2015, approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese.

    While the NYC proposals may be born out of frustration and an edict from the top brass to do something about the costs of obesity, the proposals miss the point – there are more people obese around the world than the population of the USA – obesity is a biological and neurological problem, not a challenging sub-set of people living in the Bronx.

    Obesity should be treated as a human disease and not stigmatized as an aberration born out of weakness of will and ignorance of individuals.

    The NYC proposals are, in the great scheme of things, aimed at a tiny minority and only a fraction of their expenditure.

    Obesity is about more than soda. While it has played a significant role, this proposal would be a step back in the advancement of tackling the main problem which if it were a virus would be considered a pandemic and given greater attention at every level of government.

    Lisa Young and Marion Nestle identified a major shift in human food consumption when they published their paper in 2002 on the growth of portion sizes. Corn subsidy and the introduction of industrialized sweetener production played a significant role in causing that spike.

    But obesity had been a percolating issue from the 1950s when food costs first began to drop and earnings began to rise. Soda can hardly be said to be at fault for the genesis of obesity in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it is a fuel that helps fan the fire today.

    The fight against knee jerk reactions, hearsay and ill made judgments started 350 years ago when the Royal Society was founded to promote good science. Good science is about reductionism until the problem is identified.

    We should be asking why it is that people gain excessive weight in the face of their own better judgment and public outcry. What is it that makes a person grab another piece of fried chicken or a cheeseburger despite being told by their doctor that they are giving up several years of their lives and risk living with diabetes in the years that they have left.

    Follow the process of reductionism until you reach the neuron(s) in the brain that make so many hundreds of millions of people reach out for sugared soda, foods high in fat and portions that are larger portion than is necessary for survival.

    It was the evolution of our larger brains that set us apart from the other primates and elevated us to the top of the food chain. Spend a little more time using those larger brains and leave behind witch-hunts that target the least able in society.

  • Marisa

    How will they take the money “otherwise spent on soda” and use it to promote education for recipients? Are they going to take away the money from recipients that would otherwise be used for food and use it to educate them about food instead? This seems like a very odd idea….

  • Sheila

    Well written. Would love to see soda money redirected into nutrition, locally grown produce from community farms and markets. Would even advocate increasing the funding for this program if it could target providing nutrition assistance instead of junk food assistance.

  • Jon

    Yeah, I think it’s a matter of the government’s choice. God knows that if I gave someone money and they spent it all on gambling, liquor, and pornography, I would never give them money again. So yeah, the government has a right to ban soft drinks.

  • I’m a big fan of Andy Fisher, but I wish he and other anti-hunger advocates would help encourage people on tight budgets to eat healthy food by showing how possible it is. For example, Andy writes:

    ” … 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.”

    In my analysis of healthy, thrifty choices for drinks, I report that “The twelve-pack of bottled ‘iced’ tea cost $6.93. Each bottle held 16.9 fluid ounces of tea. I did the math and found that I could make the same amount of tea using a national brand of tea bags for only 54 cents! That’s a savings of $6.39 for boiling a little water.”

    So the better choice, home-brewed tea full of phytonutrients and without sugar or additives, is the cheaper choice. Tap water turns out to be even cheaper, costing about 1/3 of a cent for the equivalent of a a twelve-pack of bottled water.

    See details at

  • Pete

    Do food stamps have to meet some kind of caloric minimum? That’s a game changer.

  • Hannah L

    I agree with Linda on the importance of knowledge. At the end of Andy Fisher’s article, highlighted in red by Marion, he suggests putting money that would’ve otherwise gone toward soda toward programs that encourage food stamp spending at farmers markets and other community-oriented programs. While this would be ideal, there are many issues with availability and access to farmers markets. I think redirecting money toward nutrition education would be more practical, and teaching low-income families to cook using fruits and vegetables from supermarkets would combat obesity just as effectively as using fruits and vegetables from farmers markets. Of course there are benefits to supporting the local economy and reducing the environmental impact of the transport of fresh produce, but the “obesity epidemic” is at the heart of the matter here. Real change needs to occur in the knowledge and taste buds of low-income families first and foremost.

  • Marg

    I agree with Ed that Mayor Bloomberg’s food stamp plan risks stigmatizing poor, obese citizens. However, I disagree that we should treat obesity as a disease because it is a risk factor for other diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, and high blood pressure. Treating it like a disease may draw more attention to it, but to a certain extent it denies human agency in solving the problem by simply viewing it as a biological or neurological dysfunction. It is unfortunate that we have to define something as a legitimate disease in order to receive the support necessary to solve the problem.

    I also agree that soda is a quick fix to the obesity issue. It may reduce health care costs and expenses for the food stamp program, but there are so many other high- fructose corn syrup foods that it seems naïve to think that this ban will make a big difference. Also, banning soda from food stamp coverage does not guarantee that poor people will stop drinking it, especially if they consume it so regularly. As Fisher indicates, there are larger factors such as the accessibility of cheap, unhealthy food, which often dictate what poor people eat.

    I understand that soda consumption is especially high in poorer populations, but I’ve always thought that it was an issue for the entire population. Soda is everywhere, from cafeterias, to grocery stores, restaurants, advertisements, etc. If this is a public health issue, all parties should be held to the same standards, regardless of their ability or inability to pay for soda on their own.

    I had a medical sociology professor that would always joke about exterminating every McDonalds as a solution to the obesity issue. He knew this was impossible for a variety of reasons, but he used this example to show what public health interventions should actually look like. We have to deal with the reality that soda is going nowhere. Instead of trying to ban poor people from having it, policy makers need to direct more focus to making nutritional food more affordable, which will arguably encourage poor people to make better food choices and decrease the high rates of obesity.

  • Pingback: A Little More on Food Stamps and Soda()

  • I also found this to be a useful discussion of the controversy. However, this statement disappointed me:

    “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.”

    This might be true in some cases, but as a blanket statement it’s both false and a limiting belief. Look beyond the out-of-season broccoli trucked in from 2,000 miles away, and look a little harder in the unpackaged fresh foods aisle and the grains/beans/legumes aisle and you’ll find plenty of laughably cheap foods that offer much more nutrition and value than almost all processed foods.

    Finally, don’t you think it’s somewhat condescending to the poor to assume that they can’t find good values in the grocery store too?

  • Mitzi

    I grew up poor, and shop in a poor community now. You can tell the SNAP recipients by the buggies full of cheap cereals, frozen dinners, and bulk meats at the beginning of the month. They could require education for new food stamp recipients (since unfortunately many these days are new to poverty), with cooking classes to show how to use those big bags of cheap potatoes, rice, dried beans, and frozen vegetables to make nutritious, filling dishes. Maybe hand out a free slow cooker and cookbook with each new SNAP card. Not to be paternalistic about it, but just to say “this- not sugary cereal that leaves you starving in an hour- will stretch your dollar, save your teeth, keep you full, and keep you healthy until times get better.” Just teach the things every peasant in Asia or Africa already knows about surviving on very little. And have the classes taught by people who are living examples.

  • Adriene Watson

    I am on food stamps myself. If this passes it will not change a thing. I will still buy my SODA one way or the other. Along with everyone else. So I can’t see what this would help. I didn’t grow up poor, but I did go hungry when my parents went on a health food kick. I don’t like it and won’t eat it. I also am not obese I weigh 120, and my children are not over weight either.