by Marion Nestle
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.


  • Roxanne Rieske

    Penny Merritt: You’re delusional. Modern pork no longer contains trichina. All cases diagnosed in the United States for the last 10-15 years have been from game meat consumption.

    And it does not take temperatures in excess of 1500 degrees to kill the worms. GET REAL! That’s the temperature it takes to melt metal. They are easily killed at 140-150 degrees.

    And WIC DOES NOT EXCLUDE fresh meat or produce. The WIC approved list is only compiled for processed foods and dry goods. Meat and produce are de facto approved.

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  • Nancy D.

    I am learning more about programs such as SNAP (at the market in which I am employed, we focus on organic, natural foods and also accept the SNAP benefits) and I guess a main source of confusion for me is that if in-house prepared foods aren’t part of the program, why should sodas be? To me, they both seem to be, for the lack of a better or more accurate term, luxury items. Perhaps that’s inaccurate but it’s just my perception.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of being condescending towards SNAP beneficiaries, but as someone whose taxpayer dollars goes towards programs such as this, I would feel better if I thought it was seriously aiding people to lead healthy lives instead of just a free pass to the candy and soda pop aisle. I don’t think that’s being too exclusive to take out such awful “foods.”

  • Doc Mudd

    “…we focus on organic, natural foods…”

    Now those are luxury items. They are the very definition of extravagance, even snobbery.

    I don’t think that’s being too exclusive to take out such pretentious foods.

  • Lee Poe

    Yeah, Mudd, you Party stooge. Let’s regulate everyone else based on your own prejudice and ignorance. How very Statist of you, but at least you’re letting your totalitarian ideas show. Nice try, but no dice.

  • Hold it a second: You condone measures that penalize the poor?

    Why not instead target the companies that manufacture unhealthy foods and tax the ingredients most used in the production of those?

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  • Jon

    Here’s a drinking game: Shot for every politician who opposes food stamps but doesn’t want to make sodas ineligible for them.

  • helen

    Banning soda is a political moved aimed at getting middle class people talking about what poor people can do to save money instead why the price of everything keeps increasing including the profit margins of a lot of companies. If soda was banned, what about kool-aid, juices, cupcake and icecream. Banning soda is like putting a bandaid on a knife wound. And people would sell their stamps to get cash for soda. While I might agree that soda is not a nececity banning it would not solve anything. However the topic is very controversial and here we all are (myself included), bloggong about this and not about what laws can be passed to stop the gas giants from charging so much and paying so little in taxes.

  • Concerned for our country

    It seems like it would be much simpler to use WIC regulations for WIC recipients AND SNAP recipients. The purpose of both is to assist those who cannot afford food, to gain nourishment. Remove all the emotion out of the decision and just make a smart decision that makes sense.

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  • Kathy

    I work at a wholesale store (bulk items) and have seen people with entire carts full of candy- I’m talking HUNDREDS of chocolate bars- all purchased with SNAP benefits. Clearly these people are selling the candy, maybe even using it to fill vending machines, and basically cashing in my tax dollars. I’ve also witnessed lobster, filet mignon, huge birthday cakes and pime rib purchased- none of which I can afford myself working full time.

  • Christine Kuhn

    How is it pretentious to want to consume foods free of harmful chemicals? Do you know what is sprayed on conventional food?! Do you know how many pounds of useless chemical fertilizers are applied to crop fields? I’m not a fool. I know that the USDA National Organic Program is flawed. But if I have to walk into a grocery store and purchase some sweet corn I’d rather it be organic than a Monsanto strain of Genetically Modified Roundup Ready corn.

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