by Marion Nestle
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.



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  • I want to thank Marion for grappling with this issue and fostering what I think is an important discussion. I will admit that I’ve never been on food stamps and cannot speak to that personal experience and appreciate the input of those who have.

    To me, the issue is largely about who ultimately benefits the most when unhealthy products are allowed to be purchased with our tax dollars? That’s right, the food industry. Guess who lobbied to get soda included in the program, when it wasn’t originally? That’s right, soda companies. And of course, they will lobby the strongest to maintain the status quo, but are happy to have others out in front arguing for the inclusion of their products.

    I’d like to see more incentive programs like the ones already in a few places like NYC that for every X dollars spent on fresh produce, you get an extra X dollars. We know these sorts of programs work. And with the money saved from not paying Coke and Pepsi, we can put more into the hands of local farmers. Win, win.

  • Daniel

    @JC I think now is exactly the right time to discuss removing items from the program. Since a good chunk of the taxpayer dollars given to SNAP recipients are spent on non-nutritious items, it is by definition an inefficient nutrition program. Agreed? (Remember, it was conservative George W. Bush renamed it from Food Stamps to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)

    This inefficiency makes the program very vulnerable to attacks from politicians who advocate for more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

    Eliminating purchases that have limited or no nutritional value makes good economic and good health sense to me.

    And, Bloomberg is only asking for a 2 year pilot, in order to see how it works.

  • Kelly

    I completely disagree with those of you who want to ban sodas for food stamp recipients. I will repeat: you’re not paying for my food stamps, I did, out of my taxes. You have no right to tell me what I can or cannot eat.

    Sugar-filled foods are a larger issue than just food stamp recipients. It may seem like an easy fix to tell a certain population that they can’t have a certain food, but that’s just putting them down, it’s not doing anything to solve the larger problem.

    And no, like I said before, I don’t buy sugary sodas, but like everyone else, I do buy the occasional cookie or chips. And just so you know, I’m diabetic, but keep my blood sugar under control through my diet. I just object to infantalizing a particular group of poeple based on economic circumstances. Sugar in the American diet is a much larger problem, and that’s what we need to address.

  • Kelly

    Daniel, you say: “Since a good chunk of the taxpayer dollars given to SNAP recipients are spent on non-nutritious items…”

    Where are you getting this statement? Please back it up with facts. Otherwise, it’s just a bad, unfair generalization.

    And it was renamed to SNAP largely because of the first word “Supplemental” – because the administrators realize that the amount given to people will likely not pay for all their food needs, it’s just a supplement. While I get $200/month, many people get less.

  • Daniel

    @Kelly: Bloomberg is not banning soda for poor people, just saying they shouldn’t be using taxpayer funds that are meant to supplement the food budget in a nutritious way.

    As has been discussed earlier, “good chunk” is about as exact as you’ll get since the USDA doesn’t publish stats on what people actually buy with SNAP.

    “Consider that carbonated soft drinks accounted for 6.19%
    of the grocery bills of food-stamp users at one large supermarket
    chain, compared to 4.38% for the average shopper (M.F. J. unpublished data, May 2010); thus, if food-stamp expenditures in fiscal year 2011 are about $69 billion, then almost $4 billion
    will be spent on carbonated soft drinks.”
    Source: “Using the Food Stamp Program and Other
    Methods to Promote Healthy Diets for Low-Income Consumers” American Journal of Public Health | September 2010, Vol 100, No. 9
    Authors: Jonathan D. Shenkin is with the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine, Boston University, Boston, MA. Michael F. Jacobson is with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, DC.

    Also, from NYC’s Waiver request, which should be required reading for everyone discussing the topic at hand:
    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].

  • Ellen

    Are people who have posted on this board current or past recipients of WIC? If so, how did you feel about the value of the program as foods provided target nutrients often lacking for pregnant women, children etc.? Clearly the sentiment is against mandating WHAT you can and cannot use SNAP benefit for but this is exactly what WIC does.

  • Abigail

    What’s missing from this discussion is concern for the working poor, who pay taxes (directly or indirectly) so that other people can have luxuries they can’t afford for themselves.

    For the past 13 years, I have shared my home (rent-free) with many single mothers trying to get on their feet. Their food-stamp allotment is twice my grocery budget.

    So: why is it OK for the government to tell me I can’t buy luxuries at all, but not OK for the government to tell food stamps recipients they can’t buy luxuries with food stamps?

  • Kelly

    Thanks for that link, Daniel. Some interesting stuff in there.

    My personal belief is that if sodas are banned from SNAP, people are going to use other money to pay for sodas anyway. I base this on my own personal need for chocolate, which I buy with my SNAP money. I spend $2.00 a week for a bar of dark chocolate, so that’s $8.00/month out of my $200 SNAP allowance. This is my personal compromise on sweets. I’d like to buy cake and ice cream, but a) I’m diabetic, and control my diabetes by my good diet b) even $200 doesn’t go very far when you eat my diet of fresh fruits, veg, high-quality meat or tofu and whole grains. I’m aware that I need to get the most bang for my SNAP buck, and as noted previously, I know how to shop the sales and cook and eat nutritious meals.

    Emotionally, I suggest that besides a lack of nutrition smarts, people buy sodas because they taste good, and it’s a cheap “treat”. That’s the way I feel about my chocolate, so I can understand drinking them. For me, this treat is a way to feel a little “normal” when my life is so out of whack. It’s comfort food, which is an emotional issue, not logical.

    I would feel very sorry for cashiers at grocery stores if this is enacted. They would be the ones to take the brunt of the anger over this issue.

    Abigail, have you applied for SNAP? Many fully employed people qualify. You may, too.

  • Daniel

    @Kelly I don’t think that cashiers will bear the brunt of their anger. People who want to buy sugar sweetened beverages can still buy it, they will just have to pay with it using their own money. It’s just like shampoo or anything else that one might buy at a supermarket. They get the SNAP total and the cash (or credit card) total.

  • Kelly

    Oh, Daniel, have you ever done customer service? Trust me, if this happens, the unfortunate people on the front line are going to have to deal with some anger.

  • Sarah

    • 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)
    This “comparison” is apples to oranges. The average SNAP moneys given to a family of two, female-head-of household and her dependent, the average price of the products made available to WIC recipients with the same family demographic is about $40 per month. WIC offers: peanut butter with corn syrup, “whole wheat” bread with corn syrup, canned tuna (with mercury…to which doctors have recommended that women in the child rearing age and young children should not consume), $6 dollars per month of a produce voucher- what would Marion Nestle have to say about that? Large amounts of overly processed cheese…Best not to forget the five gallons plus of milk, curious at first but not once you realize the amount of money that the American Dairy Council contributes to the WIC program. Two of the staple items contain corn syrup, as does soda…corn syrup is know to aid in the onset of diabetes and weight issues, but what about high amounts of animal fat? Doesn’t that lead to high cholesterol and heart disease? This comparison begs reevaluation.

  • Abigail

    Thanks, Kelly, I think we may be eligible for food stamps. I have been trying for years to form a principle that I can live by about government assistance, since it’s funded by (often unwilling) taxpayers. The closest I have come is: people who need assistance should take it, and people who don’t need it shouldn’t take it. For this reason we were on Medicaid for years. But as far as I can tell right now, I don’t need food stamps. Cheap, healthy food is available to me: I have a car, I don’t live in an urban food desert, there’s a PriceRite near me with very cheap fresh produce, I have the time to go to the grocery store. I think we do OK. If I can’t afford healthy food, I will go on food stamps. If I can’t afford luxury food, I don’t think I should go on food stamps for that reason.

    I was thinking about your idea that since you have more than paid for your food stamps with previous taxes, the government shouldn’t have a right to tell you how to spend them. I don’t think this is a principle that can be applied across the board. For example, if I were eligible for rent assistance, I would not be able to choose where to live–I’d be limited to public housing or section 8 apartments. When I received Medicaid, I was limited to doctors, drugs, and procedures that Medicaid covers. People with non-Medicaid health insurance have similar–usually more restrictive!–limitations.

    That said, there may be practical or human reasons why it’s a bad idea to put restrictions on food stamps, and I’m still thinking about those. But “the government doesn’t have a right to tell me how I can spend my food stamps” doesn’t make sense to me. And “the government doesn’t have a right to tell me I can’t have soda” _really_ doesn’t make sense to me, since nobody’s banning soda.

  • Daniel

    @Kelly Yes, I’ve worked retail. We’ve gone through a lot of the great questions you’ve raised in this comment section. If the biggest problem is cashiers having to deal with angry customers, so be it. It’s already part of their training, and they will still get paid. (Also, I suppose it’s worth noting that more and more supermarkets are using robot cashiers.)

    At the end of the day, there are always going to be customer service issues and people who are not 100% satisfied with policy changes. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not good policy change overall. I’ll say it again, to allow sugar sweetened beverage to remain in the program will allow those wholly opposed to any government food assistance to factually argue that SNAP’s tagline “We help put healthy food on the table for over 40 million people each month” is not working as intended or as promised.

  • Kelly

    Abigail, banning soda is the point of this thread, so it does make sense. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for everyone having a healthy diet, and I wish that people who ate crap, whether on food stamps for not, ate better. I, too, see people pile sugar and fat laden foods in their cart and want to stop them. I don’t know how they’re paying for that food, but it’s an awful thing to do to your body.

    Daniel, I just responded about cashiers because they are the front line in any consumer issues – of course, it’s not the only reason not to enact this ban.

    I’m glad to have participated in this discussion. I wish that other food stamp recipients had participated, as mine is only one point of view-I certainly don’t represent everyone. It would be interesting to see how a ban on soda would work out and to hear from people whom this would actually affect.

    Best to everyone…

  • Briley

    I just stumbled on this blog, and I love it. I agree on principal with banning the purchase of sodas with food stamps. But I have a question for you. Obeesity is so much higher in low income populations partly, (arguably mostly), due to the low cost of highly processed and unhealthy foods. A twenty-four pack of soda is cheaper than a twelve pack of bottled water in many stores. Also, a lot of healthier juice alternatives are more expensive and won’t go nearly as far for a family as the soda will. Does this justify the purchase? No. However, what can be done about the overarching issue rather than just saying, “No, you can’t buy this, but we have no solution for you.”

  • Scott

    My answer is simple…. Get a life and mind your own business… Leave people alone to make thier own desisions.

  • Daniel

    For what it’s worth: In multivariate analyses adjusted for race, insurance status and rural/urban residence, proximity (network distance) to convenience stores was negatively associated with BMI percentile and proximity to farmers’ markets was positively associated with BMI percentile.

    From: The association between the food environment and weight status among eastern North Carolina youth.
    Public Health Nutr. 2011 Apr 13:1-8.

  • Jessica

    I think that they should enact guidelines that make it more difficult to purchase sodas, Kool Aid, and other high sugar foods and beverages with SNAP benefits. I have been on both SNAP and WIC in my life, twice on SNAP, both times for a period of less than 8 months as I got my finances together after some sort of upheaval. When I was on WIC it was because I was too poor to afford anything and the foods that I was given were basically the only healthy foods I had. Plain Cheerios, real cheese(not cheese food, which is what I could afford), carrots, tuna, peanut butter were all very very helpful to a family living from foodbank to foodbank with no real knowledge of healthy eating. Of course now that I am older I know those foods may or may not have been as healthy as they could have been, but they were alot healthier than the Ramen noodles that I could afford. SNAP benefits were never enough to buy food for the entire month and by the end of the month we were back to the food banks and whatever we had managed to save like ramen noodles. We never purchased sodas, so this restriction would have never affected us. When I was raising my kids on SNAP benefits, they drank water out of the tap and were happy to have 3 square meals a day, sometimes there was only 2 and less frequently, only 1. I also believe that lower income communities need more nutritional education. It’s not enough to tell people that vegetables are good for them. We need to show them easy ways to prepare cheap vegetables so that everyone can understand eating healthier is not simply for rich people. I love what Jaime Oliver is doing with the food revolution and I think every segment of our population could and would change eating habits with just some of the information that he is trying to teach people.

  • JAC

    I am 33 yrs. old single mother to 4 wonderful sons. I was a nurse for 14 yrs until my Crohn’s Disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis forced me out of the workforce. I went from $3400/month to half of that. I have a mortgage. I have a car payment. I have many bills. I pay my bills. I get $300/ month in snap bene’s. I purchase ALOT of tea and sugar free drink mixes. My children and I each look at soda as a treat, not a necessity. Pardon me for speaking my mind but this all caught my eye. I have a neighbor that has a pitiful excuse of a non working husband. She doesn’t work by choice. They have several children. They get welfare and $900 a month in SNAP bene’s. The issue isn’t how me buying one or two soda’s is draining governement funding. My children and I are not fat. The people I mentioned sit all day and eat crappy food and they and their children are in fact fat. Why doesn’t the government step up and make no account ppl be responsible for their families instead of enabling them to continue their path of worthlessness. Their children are going to grow up to be lazy and worthless because this is the only life they know. I know there are occassions where some make it out and change their lives but, in short, this is rediculous. I make too much money to get any kind of help because I busted my hump for yrs to provide for my children because their father turned into a raging addict and has been no help to us for over 10 yrs. Why do ppl continue to get free rides? That is draining the government funding not those of us that purchase one or two sodas per month to treat our children. Ohh! What about the folks that use their EBT cash to buy beer and cigarettes?? That is something that needs banned…

  • factchecker

    Daniel is dead wrong in his proposal to support banning soda, but let us explain, nobody is saying that ideally food stamps should only be used for healthy nutritious diets, the proposal to ban soda is probably a sales tax issue since many states don’t have grocery taxes but do tax soda, candy, and other food including vegetables and seeds so its not a tax on unhealthy v. healthy, for instance ice cream no tax.

    Daniel attempts to single out soda as causing obesity, he is wrong, obesity is caused by many factors but singling out soda is wrong, if you replace with your cup of coke with a cup of OJ I guarantee you it will not be more healthy, given that OJ has 100% vitamin C and little else , most folks are not deficient and even if they were , should we allow fortified coca-cola, I admit that vitamin water is unhealthy and does not taste great so the soda industry is not godsend.

    Daniel fails to learn from WIC, 10 years has passed, and there is no WIC checkout counter, this is because WIC is specific to children and infants and cannot be used as a food stamp model, for instance , breads and juices of a certain size are not allowed although for a single-grown woman are her teenage children it can be allowed.

    What’s next, banning chocolate milk, how about stonyfield chocolate yogurt, its much unhealthier than ice cream, what about doritos, daniel cannot support a ban on doritos while allowing tortillas and cheese , how about french fries and pf chang’s unhealthy “chinese” dishes laden with sodium, or what about campbell’s chicken mushroom soup?

    The idea is demonizing to the poor because soda is cheap, accessible and tasty, I would love to see conservatives banning granola, unlean cuts of meat, and increasing the amount of food stamps to purchase healtheir vegetables, vegetables are more expensive than oil and fat because they are unperishable, its simply true that unhealthy foods are cheaper, of course a athlete who eats unhealthy foods or takes in more fat is a case example,

    should athletes denied soda or high-fat or calorie laden food, many athletes don’t calorie count, so any attempt to use a calorie/portion size ratio would not be fair.

    Let’s get back to the you can make it yourself argument, if I bake a cake, the ingredients are obviously staples, natural cakes are not healthier than unnatural ones if the calorie count is high, which of course raises the question of whether say a super-doughnut that is a doughnut that is fortified with nutrients is okay.

    The restaurant meals program such as used by golden corral allows food stamp recipients to purchase prepared foods, imagine the folks at the checkout counter trying to figure out how much sodium, fat, and protein exist in a dish, thus it is more tricky to ban unhealthy foods and the concession stand.

    To give Daniel credit, he gives reasons for the soda ban and not just a blanket argument, most folks who support food stamp soda ban’s support them because the single out on item that is tasty, daniel to give him credit attempts to further and list why soda and not other unhealthy items at least some of them should be banned.

    As I said there is a myth that there are good calories and bad calories (not to be confused with empty calories), but even then natural items are not healthy if consumed in excess.

    Let’s start with the first point, that is that sugary drinks are obesity’s cause, I doubt it, and here is why, if that were true that fruit juices were cause obesity, and that other foods would not be guilty, I recently read about carbs and diabetis, sometimes carbs are worse than the actually sugar

    this is because carbs have to be broken down, other carbs such as whole what and pasta may not be broken down , however proponents of banning food stamps will not ban white bread.

    Obesity and poverty is linked but that may be because of lack of education and food desserts, and the fact that perishable food cost more as explained above.

    I’ve discussed Wic above, as for marketing and advertising the soda companies to a great job but they do advertise “diet” sodas so that is not relevant here, although some question as to whether diet sodas can be harmful, vitaminwater on the other hand is slick and part of a lawsuit, a nutritionist once suggested vitamin water instead of soda, can you believe that, it may be because of less sugar but as I said above most americans don’t need extra vitamins, vitamin water does not taste anywhere as good as coca cola even though the sugar is high atlhough not as high, is vitamin water healthier than OJ?

    Are eating fruits bad for you, obviously fruits have the roughage, but if 100% OJ is not great , then I imagine eating mangoes, oranges and others are not wise in certain instances, although not as bad, I fail to see how sugar in a liquid form is bad because its where its coming from. Another things is that sugar syrup used in coffee and teas particulary ice or hot in which regular sugar is dissolved, I don’t believe the body digests it any special way so I am not sure what you mean by sugar in liquid form.

    Soda companies advertise on TV and other places but not disproportionally in low income areas, it may the bodegas but not the soda companies. The lack of grocery stores has nothing to do with a food stamp soda ban unless you are suggesting that amount of food stamps going towards soda is both a disproportionally high number in terms of total revenue for both the c-stores and the soda companies, in other words it has to be many times what the general public buys and a disproportionate use at c-stores. Sure food stamp uses may spend more of there money on soda, but that is a result of low-income and cuts , if a food stamp recipient were wealthier or the benefit increased % would differ.

    Given food stamps are not given to most single adults, I doubt the c-stores are getting that high-volume to soda traffic.

    As far as low-income countries, most folks in low-income countries are not fat, it has to do with calorie intake, most conservatives wonder why america and many developing countries have poor folks who are fat and wonder about the irony, after all if you are poor are you eating too much, the answer is you are eating too much calories, however in america it is different, the occupations and accessibility of cheaper food make consumption more available but healthier food is still costly,
    thus while poorer americans are eating more food or calories its the cheaper variety, whereas the folks in third world countries either have very limited intake of food due to price/income or occupations that are labor intensive such as farming.

    The two last comments related to the soda tax are the following, many conservatives would argue that if its taxpayer money there should be accountability and restrictions so its not restricting folks behavior, I’ve addressed that argument as how implementing an healthy v. unhealthy food ban won’t work and other issues however most conservatives would not oppose folks using their own money to buy those items, thus a soda tax has nothing to do with food stamps because the general public would be buying it with their own money and soda is never taxed by food stamps, in the case it is , its very small, and the argument of course is that the federal government should not be paying sales tax as a subsidy, the only problem with libertarians argument is that if soda where not taxed there could be an incentive to trade stamps for cash, likewise if all grocery items are taxed which they should be (aka ice cream or chocolate yogurt vs. soda or certain vegetables).
    then food stamp recipients would think wiser.

    Jessica’s comment is self-rigtheous , she admits to buying tea , however tea is not really that much cheaper than soda, especially iced tea, if ice tea is brewed double strength, then sure if may be 5-10 cents a cup, but cola cola is 20 cents a cup, however sales of coca cola and “store brand” soda are much cheaper if not as cheap as a tea bag, soda is not a luxury since its cheap, and if tea has NO nutritional value just like soda except soda has sugar should it be banned?

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  • Not a Chance

    Telling people what they are and are not allowed to eat and drink is exactly what a 1984-esque Government would do. The simple answer is no, and to Jessica, you sound rather self-righteous. Tea is no better than soda.

  • Amanda

    As a teenager, just a few years back, I worked at a local grocery store and I saw numerous people, several times a day, buy many different items that my husband (the worker in our family) couldn’t even afford. I’ve seen people buy enough soda to hydrate a small village for quite some time. Given that those people also drank other liquids too, the amount of soda purchased could have lasted them a week and a half (The small village, not a small family; if you get my comparison). I’ve seen many families come in and buy the best steaks and meat selections our store offered.

    I think that the selling of “foodstamps” is probably more of a problem than the soda issue. I think one way to “fix” the selling of “foodstamps” is to compare the ID of the purchaser against the EBT card. People should’t be using other peoples cards anyways. I mean, if I go to the store and use my ATM/debit card they ID me and make sure my name matches, why not do it to them, too?

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  • Sharon

    I drink water, it comes out of the faucet. I pay about $23 a month for my water bill that includes the water I use for bathing and doing my dishes. I have a brita filter that cost about $20 that I’ve had for years that makes the water taste decent. I carry a water bottle with me and fill it up at water fountains. Ah the novelty!!