by Marion Nestle
Aug 24 2011

SNAP soda ban? USDA says no!

Remember New York City’s idea to ban purchase of sodas with SNAP (food stamp) benefits?  I supported the proposal and explained why in posts on April 16, April 30, and May 1.

USDA has just sent a letter turning down the proposal.  Most of its grounds for denial are technical: too much, too soon, too big, too complex, too hard to evaluate.

Underlying these concerns is a philosophical issue:

USDA has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions to the obesity epidemic, especially among SNAP recipients. In fact, USDA is currently partnering with the State of Massachusetts in implementing the Healthy Incentives Pilot, which increases SNAP benefits when fruits and vegetables are purchased….We feel it would be imprudent to reverse policy at this time while the evaluation component of the Healthy Incentives Pilot is ongoing.

SNAP is USDA’s biggest program.  The latest figures on participation and cost indicate that SNAP serves nearly 46 million people at a cost of more than $68 billion annually.

Advocates for SNAP prefer positive incentives.  They strongly—and successfully—opposed the New York City proposal.

Indeed, the public health and anti-hunger advocacy communities are split on this issue.

I wish they would find common ground.  Rates of obesity are higher among the poor than they are in the general population.

That, after all, was the proposal’s purpose in the first place.  As Mayor Bloomberg put it:

We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country – and at little or no cost to taxpayers. We’re disappointed that the Federal Government didn’t agree..New York City will continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that affect New Yorkers and all Americans.

Back to the drawing board.



  • Schlake

    I think SNAP is easy to fix. Only allow the purchase of actual food. Something that is grown, and was once alive. Soda is made in a factory; it isn’t food. I would allow a few exceptions. Flour, for instance, could be bought despite it being a factory product. Pasta, however, would be right out.

  • Suzanne

    An interesting article on the same issue at Grist:

    One interesting observation, I believe discussed in the comment section, is that there is already an underground barter system that circumvents the intent of the proposal. People will obtain the product even if it is a prohibited product.

  • This is mind numbingly insane.

  • Why can’t the state have a model program try at it? They even have special grants for pilot programs.

  • Linda Duffy

    I still say go back to the old commodities box. Brick of cheese, bag of beans, bag of rice…. No soda, chips, cookies, candy, etc…

  • While I wish people would not buy soft drinks with their federally provided funds, it really is not the place of government to tell poor people what they can or can not eat. Besides, people will find away to get what they want. However, I would like to see governments focus on providing incentives so fresh food is cheaper, wether is be by giving incentives through the SNAP program, or by funding smaller farms and not funding processed food.

  • Brian

    “The agriculture department’s ruling on the food stamp soda ban is mainly a victory for lobbyists. Since New York City proposed the program, groups like the American Beverage Association have spent millions lobbying Washington to kill it.”

  • Roxanne

    When I’m feeding people with *MY* hard earned tax money, I don’t want to pay to feed them junk. Soda isn’t a necessary food item. You don’t need it to live, and you don’t it to maintain good health, when in fact, the opposite is true. When people decide to take government assistance, they loose the right to wholly decide what to eat.

  • cc

    Poor people should have the same rights as others. That includes the right to make their own health decisions, even if they are bad ones. As others have said, it won’t stop them friend drinking soda. It doesn’t stop them from smoking or engaging in other unhealthy behavior. Every poor person is not gaming the system. Some are on it for a short time until they get back on their feet. To treat them like children who can’t make their own decisions is demeaning and belittles a person who likely already feels bad. And soda isn’t the only bad thing. Sports drinks are just as bad. Chocolate milk is bad. Why spend all that time, money, and effort on one item purchased? It won’t change behavior or health.

  • Roxanne

    cc: People who use government assistance can make their own decisions when it’s not on my dime. When someone’s poor choices causes my taxes to go up, why shouldn’t I take issue with that? That’s money out of my pocket! Money that I really, really cannot afford to be wasted. Banning soda and other junk foods may not stop these people from eating them, but it certainly sends a message that us taxpayers will not enable them. That’s what this is about. It’s about sending a clear message on supporting health. I don’t just want soda’s banned from SNAP. I want all junk food high in sugar, fat, and salt. Those who use SNAP for even short periods of time need this stuff even less. I’m all for helping the poor with assistance, but we as a nation have a limited amount of resources to give, and we have to be prudent with them and responsible to our citizenry. To claim that taking such actions is treating the poor like children and demeaning is incredibly short-sided. It’s not that one-dimensional. WIC has a limited, selected list of foodstuffs that it will cover. Why should SNAP be any different?

  • Anthro


    The thing is that about a dime is what it’s costing you. You are not God because you pay taxes. Lots of my taxes go for war–I don’t like that, but I still pay my tax and I only grouse about it at the voting booth–as if there is much alternative to supporting the military-industrial complex.

    Poor people have enough grief without sanctimonious people adding to it. Why don’t you go meet some actual poor people and learn something about what really goes on in their lives? I bet you would have given Jesus a real tongue-lashing for ministering to the poor–especially if he’d used your dime to do it.

  • The poor pay taxes, did you know that, Roxanne? Yes! It’s true! They are not exempt from sales taxes, for example.

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  • anonymous joe

    I do NOT need some Food Nazi determining what I can buy with my food stamp card!

    I, in particular, do NOT need some limousine liberal who has never experienced fear , absolute scarcity of everything and hunger as I did for nearly three years before I finally put in for SNAP and disability to tell me ANYTHING!

    Homelessness is the closet thing to hell you can imagine on this earth.Homelessness is mainly populated by psychotics, drunken alcoholics, addicts and now middle class people who have run out of options & have no family or friends to help them. All of mine are DEAD.

    I ended up homeless after I lost my job in 2002 after an uncompensated, horrifically debilitating on the job accident (employer had no workman’s comp. closed down & fled the state )and have NOT held a steady job since then.

    BTW, I DO have an occasional bottle of soda but prefer fresh produce & vegetables & salads, I also like POTATOES, BEANS,CHEESE, TORTILLAS, SQUASH & CORN because it is My culture.

    I know the banksters want to give people like me a DEATH PANEL instead of giving me $58/mo to try & feed myself. I get $647/mo. Disability. My rent is $550/mo. utilities are $65/mo.

    You do the math.

    I get by.

    It is very lonely with my family being dead. Holidays really are the worst.

    I have applied for work. In the three years before I got my disability ruling,I sent out 200 emailed resumes a month and had a Total of THREE job interviews. I was told I was too old, clients did not want to see a disabled person because disability was not their company brand and I needed to find a retirement home. Illegal & discriminatory but prove it in court?

    I just want to be left alone. Send me my check & leave me the hell alone.

    I put in my 45 years of work and now I can’t work anymore I am told. Getting old in the USA is a death sentence. We are not honored as elders and our life experience counts for zilch. They tell me it’s even worse in Europe.

    Commanding me what I can or cannot eat when most of you have no idea in hell what I have been through makes me sick! Instead of ordering people around with this DISGUSTING smug, sanctimonious arrogance,find something useful to do like making a community garden so people CAN have fresh,nutritious food,explain to people how to use their Medicaid & Medicare and do some REAL good for a change.

    I haven’t had an evil soda for about a month, much preferring ice tea or that evil chocolate or strawberry milk.I am NOT obese.

    Someday, I will have a wonderful meal in a restaurant where I hope Food Nazi bastards can’t go just for the experience of exquisite haute cuisine. I try to do that every year to remind myself I am still human, which the damn federal government wants to deny to me with their death panels.

    Like I said, just give me my check & leave me the hell alone and I will gladly return the favor.

  • Kat

    @ anonymous joe

    Thanks for your perspective. Nice to know internet access is not inaccessible for you!

    I think people often forget the whole “taxes run both ways” argument, as put forth by you and cc. Taxes are paid every time we put gas in our cars, by products at a retail store, renew your car tabs, pay your rent or mortgage, pay your utility bill, your phone bill, your cable bill, buy groceries (in some states), or get a paycheck. We ALL pay in some way.

    As much I personally dislike the idea of my taxes paying for some poor (both in economic terms and empathy terms) person putting junk into their bodies, it is not my right to legislate morality.

    I hope that someday we (scientists, health educators, the medical community, etc) will simply be able to convince people to choose healthier options, and/or price the unhealthy options similarly to tobacco, so it’s simply too extravagant to consume those unhealthy foods/beverages on a regular basis. These foods/beverages should be a once-in-awhile special treat, not a 6-pack a day as happens in some families — regardless of socio-economic status.

  • Sheila

    I wish we could use the positive incentive idea to eliminate consumption of empty calories. I am sorry the feds think it is too hard to do. For example, if you did not use any food stamps to buy soda last month, you get twice as much this month in produce coupons. For those who claim it is too expensive to eat well, just this am I shopped for seasonal produce at a national chain grocer and found large pretty bananas for 35 cents each, and a huge cantaloupe, at least 6 servings, for 32 cents a serving if we cut it into 6 servings, lovely nectarines for 44 cents and beautiful fresh blueberries for 49 cents a serving. Contrast that with 99 cents for the 20 ounce soda or 79 cents for a candy bar or 99 cents for a small bag of chips. We will have a delightful fruit salad plate for 2 tonight for less than a soda and candy bar. I’m not trying to be somebody’s food nazi, I just know I feel better eating well and I suspect most other people would also.

  • Roxanne

    I love it how you all think you know me so well. I grew up poor. My family used food stamps and food banks for the first 16 years I was growing up. I got one pair of new shoes a year and often had to depend on local charity organizations for clothing. I worked 2 jobs to put myself through college, where I minored in Social Justice and spent a lot of time volunteering in a couple of local soup kitchens and raising funds for the Salvation Army. Don’t tell me I don’t have empathy and sympathy for the poor. One thing that is so incredibly rampant in poverty is poor health. This limits the potential and ambitions of the poor; they have a limited chance of changing their situation without good health. There are two reasons for that: poor food choices from lack of availability and nutritional education and poor medical care. Much of the time, our tax dollars are used incorrectly to address these issues.

    We are not legislating morality by using our tax money in ways that encourage healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. That’s ridiculous. Food choice is not a morality issue, not when Science reveals to us the path of healthy eating and living. Oh, except in America, where it’s all about “me” and “my freedom.” My concern is improving the lives of the poor, giving them as much opportunity as possible to rise out of their situations. They can’t do that by eating junk and drinking soda. If *you* have spent as much time with the poor as I have, you would understand the limitations poor nutrition have on their lives: how tired they are; plagued with chronic infections; and a clear lack of vitality and energy. Personally, I’m disgusted with how my tax dollars are being used to help feed the poor. I have no problem paying taxes (as I stated earlier, did you miss that part?). I know everybody pays taxes in one way or another, I’m not stupid. But I have the right to say that how my tax dollars are being used or not used is ridiculous. I want my tax dollars to be used in ways that are efficient, effective, and clearly benefit the people of this country, not keep them under heel and begging for scraps. That’s unacceptable to me.

  • Roxanne

    Also, taking what I’ve learned from 4 years of Jesuit college, I’m betting Jesus would much rather someone have a plate of vegetables, rice, and beans than a 32 oz soda and a bag of chips. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t even consider the soda and chips to be food of any type.

    Which meal is going to better enable a person to rise to their full human potential?

  • factchecker

    Defining junk food is not easy, the program is for meal prep,lifestyle changes are not discussed, for instance should a courier on food stamps be denied a high-calorie meal or a fitness instructor vs. a clerk,
    also 10 egg yolks are “natural” but bad for you, is a doughnut really worse than a bagel with cream cheese, soda bad, white bread?

    Take chips for example, would you tell a recipient no tacos, given the ingredients, avacado,sour cream, cheese, corn chips(junk?),?

    We could limit the program to staples that nutrients,lack of need however for additional vitamins and minerals mean its hard to question, also take a greek yogurt with fruit vs. ice cream.

  • I took a class on the American Welfare State at Columbia, and in comparison to other, better functioning welfare states, such as those in Europe, ours is overwhelmingly generous. Make no mistake, I believe everyone has a right to food, but to which foods? For how long? Welfare assistance isn’t a permanent government service, it is supposed to function as a temporary lift from an unfortunate situation. It should be such that you should never want you or your family to be on welfare. Being able to purchase sugary processed foods and drinks detracts from this incentive to get off of welfare.

    The facts that those on welfare are incentivized to stay on welfare, in addition to the imminent health risks that SNAP inadvertently encourages, need to change. I agree with the ban’s apologists. It’s disappointing to see yet another logical and well-positioned policy proposal rejected for reasons of “consumer freedom.” No doubt the CCF and the food industry played a role here.

    Does that solve the whole problem of people purchasing foods that make them sick? Of course not. Do we want people to want to get off of welfare so they can purchase their favorite candies? Definitely not. Fruits and vegetables aren’t punishments, they’re gifts, albeit simple ones. Those on SNAP just can’t see that they have access to the best nutrition through welfare through their sugar haze.

  • Jon

    The hilarity is that the people I’ve seen who have a problem with banning the purchase of soda with SNAP are the people who are the strongest opponents of food stamps altogether. Bachmann very famously.

  • factchecker

    Samantha, perhaps you need to re-take that course, American has one of the LOWEST industrialized benefits in the world, we need more welfare not less.

    Also, singling out one food as junk and not the other is difficult, and silly as banning sports athletes from drinking gatorade, where do we stop or start, are tacos junk, mott’s apple sauce, you would be hard pressed to believe that many concentrated fruit juices are the same, but nobody is proposing bans or taxes on them, how about dole peaches in syrup, quaker granola vs. cocoa puffs, dark chocolate?

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