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.



  • Kate

    Is there a database that tracks SNAP purchases by food type? SNAP now takes the form of a debit-card, so if stores feed back metadata from their inventory system (collected when the item barcode is read at the register) to the SNAP database you could pretty easily aggregate food purchases across populations by category to see how much of an issue this really is.

    (I’m very sorry to be missing the conference in DC on 5/4. I registered for it (since its free!) and then realized I have a big software project build happening that day and can’t be out of the office. I’m so disappointed!)

  • I think we need to differentiate between “telling individual people what to eat” (which I oppose) and essentially GIVING them bad food.

    SNAP is a NUTRITION assistance program, and it’s failing miserably as such. The assumption that people on SNAP can’t buy treats is false: many people on SNAP also receive TANF – cash assistance. Why can’t treats come from TANF money?

    In addition, if SNAP had nutrition requirements, it might offer an economic incentive for fringe food purveyors to offer things like plain oatmeal, beans, milk and raisins. WIC already has this effect; see how many WIC foods are at your local drugstore.

    We don’t ask ourselves whether the people to whom we offer foreign aid are able to buy sodas (in fact, we don’t really them any choices at all – see ) Doesn’t this seem like a double standard to you?

  • I’m thinking along the same lines as Michael. Government food assistance should concentrate on helping people obtain the nutrients they need. This does not at all mean they we are “telling people what they should be eating.” Everyone has the right to buy soda anytime they want to. Even people on SNAP. They just can’t use the SNAP card to buy it.

    Looking at it another way, the SNAP card lets people buy part of their groceries. This is less of their income they have to spend on food, which leaves them a little money to use on other things.

    Which includes sodas, if that’s what they want.

  • It seems entirely logical to remove soda from STAMP eligibility. With limited funds for food, the money that is available shouldn’t be wasted on empty calories.

  • Stephanie

    While I do agree that the government should not be able to mandate people’s food choices, SNAP and similar programs should focus on helping people meet their nutritional needs. Since soda pop is has no real nutritional value and people would not need it to meet their caloric needs I do not feel they should be allowed to use SNAP to receive it.

  • Kate

    What else would you preclude from SNAP purchases? Soda is but one element in the problem of food and nutrition in this country. It seems punitive to focus only there and not on things like chips, pastries, snack foods, etc. I don’t have a problem with excluding food categories, mind you, I just think any wide-reaching policy should be consistent.

  • ACLS

    This may mark the first time a single blog post totally changed my mind on an issue, but your argument, particularly the part about heavy marketing, is compelling. I guess I sometimes think about these issues as if they exist in a vacuum, and that’s just not true when there’s this much money involved. (Although, now that my opinion has changed, I agree with Kate that it doesn’t go far enough!)

    Thanks, Marion.

  • My personal feeling is that if Group A is giving something to Group B for free, then Group A has the right to dictate the terms.

    People have the right to spend their own, earned money however they wish, but this is welfare – it’s not the same. I honestly wish we had food stamps here in the UK. Here, they get cash to spend on whatever they wish.

    I do wonder where they could draw the line, though. Nutrition is an ever-evolving science. The only thing we can truly, 100% agree on is that the less processed a product is, the better it is.

  • Kate

    @Becca, mind you don’t get punitive about it. A logical extension of “my money, my terms” would to simply give people rations of food “the government” dictates is appropriate to serve the bare nutritional needs per person per family. Bag of dry lentils, anyone?

  • Abigail

    The question isn’t whether poor people should be allowed to buy soda (no one’s suggesting they shouldn’t!); it’s whether taxpayers should be forced to buy soda for poor people.

    I’m no libertarian. I believe that rich people should be forced to buy food for poor people. I don’t believe that anyone should be forced to buy soda for anyone.

    Wouldn’t it be great if food stamps allowed recipients to buy fresh produce at half price? Then there would be a greater demand for fresh produce, and convenience stores in urban food deserts would start stocking them.

  • Kate

    @Abigail I think you’re heading in the right direction. Absent any additional efforts to improve or increase access to nutritious food (with, I should add, the ability to store it safely and cook it properly, which presumes reliable electricity and a refrigerator) disallowing access to empty calories that “the government” doesn’t approve of just reeks of paternalism. I’m starting to see visions of a Dickens serial in my head.

  • Shad

    Is anyone who is commenting on this actually using food stamps? Just curious. We all want to do stuff “for the poor” but how many people want to do stuff “with the poor”. Is anyone going to ask how the people who use food stamps think about it? No, of course not.

    And since the poor have no political power, they will not be able to do anything about it. So, you’ll make the poor not buy soda with SNAP because soda companies have a large marketing budget? Really?

    I get the all the reasoning but I’m a little tired of the noblesse oblige vibe when rich (and middle class) people talk about what’s best for the poor. It’s condescending and arrogant. When we stop talking down to poor because they’re not as smart as us, maybe we’ll get somewhere.

    Please don’t any of you deny you do it, either. Check yourself next time you’re talking about what the poor need. Maybe we should work on economic justice then we won’t need food stamps.

  • Ellen

    I am in full support of banning soda and other sugared beverages from being covered under SNAP benefits. Sugar is proven to be excessively consumed in our country and sugared beverages have no nutritional merits aside from being caloric. Given the obesity pandemic, we need to reconsider how SNAP is regulated as the poorest individuals are likely the least aware of the excess calories consumed. As a RD, I am not recommending potato chips as an optimal food but at least there are some nutrients obtained whereas soda is solely sugar. I also agree that the SNAP model should be more like WIC which is the one nutrition program that actually has been shown to benefit the participants. Lastly, I also feel that SNAP benefits need to be re-evaluated in terms of not allowing any hot or prepared foods “to go”. Some foods are highly nutritious (salad, rotisserie chicken for example). Many people have limited skills for meal preparation so instead frozen dinners and Ramen noodles are consumed.

  • @Kate – you make a great point, but I don’t believe that it’s necessarily the logical extension. I believe that there’s a balance to be achieved with welfare and personal liberties.

    Welfare, as a type of charity, has to come from a place of love. We want people to grow up loving good, nutritious food and being healthy because of that. After all – it is never the intention that a person should be on welfare forever – part of the benefit has to be long-term education as well as short-term need.

    If I were only permitted to buy the most basic foods, I would react in the same way that I do when I’ve put myself on a restrictive diet – as soon as I regained the freedom, I would go back to eating junk.

    @Shad – I think you’ve essentially contradicted yourself there. Poor people are just people. Why should their wants be any different to anyone else’s? We all want the maximum choice available to us; we all believe that our decision-making skills are better than the government’s.

    I’m due to start receiving Maternity Allowance soon (everyone in the UK who is employed or self-employed receives some sort of payment from the government). Sure, I would be pretty annoyed if someone said “right, you’re not allowed to spend any of this on caffeine, paté or soft cheese”. Those are things – just like the soda – that are generally accepted as unhealthy, but my doctor has told me I’m fine to have them in moderation. I’d be annoyed; I’d think “sod you – I have the right to choose what I eat and drink”. But I don’t have that right – not when the money is coming from someone else.

  • This is a topic that borders on several areas of civil liberties and public health.

    For my part, if there is a general agreement that sodas are bad enough for public health (which I agree with as a statement of fact based on emerging evidence) that nutritional assistance cannot be spent on them, then government policy should change to make them a ‘controlled’ food type.

    As long as the official view is that sodas are ok to sell without restriction, then civil liberties have to be maintained, unfortunately, in this instance which allows freedom of choice.

    The system is broken on this issue and needs to be fixed.

  • Anthro

    There are so many fallacies about the “poor” here that I do not know where to begin. Some people receive food stamps in short term situations because they have lost their jobs and depleted their savings. In these cases, the ridiculous assumption holds that the FS are just a part of one’s food budget–this line of thinking allows us to give people just enough to stave off starvation and certainly not enough to procure healthy, fresh food.

    I don’t think most of the commenters have a clue about who gets FS, how they are actually used, or how much an individual gets–the maximum in my state for a single person is $200/mo.

    By the way, FS is NOT a “welfare” program–it is an agricultural surplus program and is meant to benefit the ag industry in a way.

    If you are concerned about poor people getting adequate nutrition, there is much to worry about besides how people use FS. Take an active interest in how many hours poor children sit in front of television watching commercials for all kinds of junk food. How are Lucky Charms much better than soda? Is apple juice in a silly little box really any better than soda? How about the quality of the schools these children attend? How about their parents’ attitudes toward, and participation in, their education?

    Poverty is a complex issue and we should be working for social justice, not quibbling about soda and FS. Soda and the companies that market it so vigorously, is the enemy, not poor people.

    It particularly rankles me when people assume that because something is being “paid for” by one group, that gives them the right to tell the recipient exactly what to do with it. We all pay into the pool and it is doled out according to law and policy. I don’t agree with many things that miniscule amounts of my tax money is spent on, but that simply is not the point of democracy.

  • Ellen

    To Anthro: On what evidence do you call food stamps, SNAP benefit a agricultural surplus program? I think you are mistaken or I am not fully aware. Yes you can usually use the fs/snap benefit at farmers markets but it is not a mandate. If it were mandated, I might be able to see you qualifying it as an agricultural surplus program. Soda, Twinkies, Ramen noodles are not agricultural surplus items.

    Lastly, many people on this board including myself are fully engaged in targeting poor eating habits from numerous angles, not just advocated for changes in food stamps/snap benefits. Obesity and nutritional problems are multi-factorial in nature and cannot be modified by only one type of intervention.

  • Kelly

    I am on food stamps. I’m 48 and have been unemployed for a year. I am a middle-class woman who has been caught in this crappy economy, and I’m one of the growing numbers of people using food stamps. It’s not just the “poor” any more – I bet some of your neighbors are on food stamps and you just don’t know it.

    I get $200 a month, which barely covers my needs. Fortunately, I have a car, access to good grocery stores, and know how to shop for bargains and cook from scratch. I eat a healthy, varied diet full of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

    Stores do have categories for allowed and disallowed food categories. As Ellen pointed out, pre-made foods are disallowed on FS. I know that homeless people are on FS, so I have to wonder how they handle that stupid restriction. When I buy a pre-made salad, I have to pay cash for it because my card disallows it. And I can’t buy vitamins, either. Many of the historically poor people don’t have my skills and access to good stores, and resort to buying mixes, cheap white bread and frozen foods because that’s all they know, and all they can get in their neighborhood.

    I think that banning sodas starts us down a slippery slope, so I disagree on that basis alone. I eat a healthy diet, but I sometimes buy cookies, chips, and yes, the occasional (diet) soda, just like any other person in the country. And I usually have a few squares of dark chocolate at night, so, yes, I do buy sweets with my FS. And I’ll tell you, if you try to dictate to me that I can’t have chocolate, we would have a real problem. I would happily take you down in the middle of the grocery store if you tried that.

    Oh, and I paid for my own food stamps, thank you very much. Every paycheck I’ve earned for the last 28 years have had taxes taken out to go into that pot. So you are not paying for my food, so you can get off your high horse and stop feeling so smug that you “pay” for my food, so you can tell me what to eat.

    If you want poor people to eat better, you need to rally to educate them about nutrition, teach them how to cook, ensure that they have good grocery stores, and support them in their overall efforts to eat and live a healthy lifestyle. Just sitting there in your comfy house and dictating that they shouldn’t consume one type of food/beverage is elitist and boorish. If you’re really interested in this issue, don’t dictate, do more.

  • Joe

    I am an RD who works in an urban setting and I can tell you education is not the issue. 99.9% of the people I work with have sufficient nutrition knowledge. The fact is that people eat what they want to eat despite what they know intellectually.

    All the laws and regualtion is the world will never stop people from doing what they want when it comes to food choices. Some may not like the choices they make but that is life.

    There is one thing I find curious about this type of discussion and that is if it is my body isn’t it my choice what I do with it? If I want to eat fried twinkies all day long isn’t that my right? That is the pro choice way right?

  • There are those on assistance who are also diabetic. I know from having diabetics in my family, that they can not enjoy fruit juice; too much sugar for them.

    Aside from water, their choices in beverages are limited to coffee, tea, and diet soda.

    While I do not drink soda on any regular basis, I stock diet soda in my refrigerator for those that I can not offer an alternative beverage.

    Putting limits or constraints on how people choose to use food supplement programs is insensitive, at a minimum, and condescending to these folks, many know what is best for them.

  • Michael Bulger

    I think this is a wildly complicated and nuanced issue. As Kelly pointed out, much of the issue has to do with personal choices and circumstances that go beyond income. Ability to cook from scratch, and having the facilities in which to do so, make every individuals food stamp choices different.

    Kelly also points out that food stamp recipients have also payed into the system. This isn’t a black-and-white, rich and poor situation.

    Personal choice is important. For instance, I make the personal choice to not purchase soda, chocolate, cookies, etc. I’m lucky enough to have an education that enables me to see these junk foods as unnecessary consumer goods. Personally, I place them in the same category as violent video games and cheap plastic toys best marketed to the less mature.

    Food stamps are part of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The key word is “nutrition”. I would wholeheartedly oppose making it illegal for a SNAP recipient to purchase a root-beer float with their own cash. By the same token, I cannot honestly support the exchange of a “nutrition” benefit for a sugary beverage. To do so would be to thumb my nose at the spirit of the program, the law, the tax-payers, and, yes, the recipient.

    Bring on the soda ban.

  • Daniel

    Just by virtue of watching TV produced for a black audience, you’re more likely to be exposed to soda advertising.

    Impact of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption on Black Americans’ Health. A Research Brief. The African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network. January 2011.

    This research brief, authored by members of the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network (AACORN), summarizes trends in sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption among black adults and youth, outlines related health consequences, and identifies research needs and priorities that could help inform policies to reduce SSB consumption among black Americans. To emphasize areas of disparity, the brief provides comparison data for white Americans where available and also includes some data for Hispanic Americans, another ethnic minority population potentially affected by the same types of SSB issues.

  • Daniel

    I wonder if more people buy soda using SNAP, does that create a positive feedback cycle where there ends up being more soda, and therefore less of the healthy choices on the shelves? Shelf real estate is finite after all.

  • Daniel

    @Kate. No the USDA does not track these purchases, even in aggregate. Only the retailers know what SNAP is being used to purchase.

    And SNAP funds don’t even flow directly from retailer to USDA. They go through the banking system.

    Check out The More Americans That Go On Food Stamps The More Money JP Morgan Makes
    “JP Morgan is the largest processor of food stamp benefits in the United States. JP Morgan has contracted to provide food stamp debit cards in 26 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. JP Morgan is paid for each case that it handles, so that means that the more Americans that go on food stamps, the more profits JP Morgan makes. Yes, you read that correctly. When the number of Americans on food stamps goes up, JP Morgan makes more money.”

  • Kate

    @Daniel, then the USDA should be able to get that data directly from the retailers it and aggregate it themselves and then see if this is really a problem or just another example of noblesse oblige, as a previous commenter so aptly described it. The next step would be to look for any patterns or hotspots of food purchases that the wealthy disapprove of, and following that to do an inventory analysis to see if those hotspots correspond with “food deserts” — which might indicate that people are purchasing soda and frozen pizza because there is nothing else to buy.

    By the way, would diet soda be exempt from this hypothetical ban?

  • Anthro

    This is a brief history of the FSP, which was founded and is still administered by the USDA–it’s an agricultural program. Of course, it is tied to welfare and welfare reform acts, but it was begun to help make use of agricultural surpluses.

    I would like to thank Kelly for sharing her story and for defending her right to maintain her integrity of choice through a difficult time in her life. I received FS briefly in the 80’s, when I had dependent children. I had absolutely NO cash after barely making the mortgage and so used the FS to buy jelly beans to make Easter baskets for my kids. I, too, had been paying taxes all my life before (and since) this catastrophe stuck, so didn’t feel so bad about the jelly beans, but I’m pretty sure the person behind me in the line thought I was a shiftless bum.

    If nothing bad has ever happened to you–Great! If you have family to call on when it does–Great! But, life happens and that is why a great nation looks after those in need. Yes, there will be some abuse, but frankly, I worry a lot more about all the death and destruction of wars than I do about FS abuse.

    I encourage others to share their own stories about FS, including cheating–but only if they have firsthand information–not rumors about someone they heard about in another part of town. When I had them, I found the documentation to be rigorous–believe me, to those of you who make it all sound like you are being so noble to grant assistance to others, it is already a pretty humiliating process to get assistance–further humiliation is hardly needed.

  • J.A.M.

    Speaking as someone whose family is currently being assisted by a food stamp program; I absolutely believe that the SNAP programs should dictate the nutritional parameters for purchases. It pains me to say that our family would not be able to make ends meet without this assistance. However, in saying that, we take our “obligation” to get the most for that assistance dollar, very seriously. I have found myself scrutinizing, more than normal, what the nutritional value of my shopping cart holds as well as that of others. It is infuriating to see a person, ahead of me in line, piling bags and boxes of junky snacks, TV dinners, colored HFC water (pretending to be juice) and sugary treats onto the checkout counter.

    Not that I would feed that trash to my family anyway, but it galls me none the less. I understand that education is essential but discipline and self responsibility are as well. I am very thankful that my state has allowed our local farmer markets the ability to use this payment. I can now go to these stands and buy fresh, local produce, eggs, milk, meat and handmade breads. It is not about quantity, it’s about quality. When our food is nutritious and satisfying, we do not need as much and we stay sated longer.

    Honestly, this humbling experience has been a good thing for our family. We eat better, my step-son is learning to prepare and cook fresh foods and we have a greater appreciation for where our food comes from. I am grateful that these programs exist, I can’t imagine how we would get along without it right now but, the fact is that there have to be better guidelines put in place. It’s unfortunate but obvious that most people are, seemingly, too lazy to police themselves.

  • JC Dwyer

    This issue is very easy to demagogue on both sides. Instead of discussing the relative merits of a soda ban (which I oppose), I’d like to hear Marion’s thoughts on the strategic timing of this conversation. Is it wise to open up the foundations of the largest federal nutrition program to large-scale change when the historical opponents of that program’s very existence have the majority and momentum in the legislative arena? This conversation reminds me very much of welfare reform, which started with advocates divided on Clinton’s initial reform goals (which were intended to help low-income families), and ended with a newly empowered conservative Congress taking the opportunity to gut many social programs. Is now the right time to talk about this?

  • I totally agree with your statement. However, I think a compromise on the issue would be more effective.

    I receive SNAP benefits and I also care greatly about my family’s eating habits (I have 3 children ages 4 and under). All five of us are vegetarian and we try to prepare as many meals as possible (for example: we are making homemade pizza dough — from scratch– tonight rather than a frozen pizza).

    I think it’s awful that I could conceivably spend my $250/mo SNAP benefits on Twinkies. However, it is nice to be able to buy occasional treats for my kids (such as marshmallows to make s’mores in our fire pit or ice cream for birthday parties). I think there should be a cap on how much a person can spend on junk food in a month with their SNAP benefits (I think 10 percent would be fair). That way, you aren’t outright banning people from spending money on junk food/soda/etc, you’re just specifying the amount they can spend.

  • Brandon

    Yep nutrition is rough.

    I agree, I would like to see a ban on soda sales for SNAP recipients.

    But you can’t just take it away, or people get angry. You’ve got to get peeps to want to care about what they put in their bodies. Not just ‘educate’. You’ve got to inspire them to get motivated to make changes. Then you have to help them get tools to make the changes.

    It’s like the Biggest Loser. When a persons gets all these resources available to them to become healthier, change happens. It’s a struggle because change is hard, but it happens.

    Basically, if there’s just a flat out ban, people will find a new ‘soda’.