• Do Food Stamps and Fanta Mix?

Improving SNAP, Improving Lives: The Case For Healthier Food Stamps

The city's social services commissioner makes the case for prohibiting the use of food stamp benefits to buy sugary drinks.

America’s food stamp program, currently called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is one of our nation’s proudest achievements. It provides assistance to millions of struggling families by helping them put food on their tables during difficult times. Every day, the program helps seniors on fixed incomes, working families, and people facing hardships due to unemployment or disability. During the recent economic downturn as our economy struggles to get back on its feet, the program has responded like no other social safety net – expanding by more than 38 percent in New York City, to 1.7 million people.

But the program is not perfect. In fact, it has a serious flaw: Food stamps can still be used to buy soda and sugar-sweetened drinks, products which provide no nutritional value, and are actually a leading cause of the obesity and diabetes epidemics. That’s why New York State has submitted a proposal to the USDA which would prohibit the use of food stamps to buy these products on a two-year trial basis. Benefits would not be reduced by a penny, and people could still use their own money to buy whatever they want.

The program’s primary goal has always been to supplement a household’s income with nutritious foods. So it just doesn't make any sense for government to subsidize the purchase of the products that contribute most to the growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes, both of which are much more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. It’s also sending a mixed message to the millions of people who rely on food stamps to meet their nutritional needs. On one hand, government is educating and encouraging people to live healthier and watch their diets. Yet on the other, it’s contributing to the very habits that lead people to suffer from serious health consequences.

Our proposal is really about offering the maximum assistance to those who depend upon food stamps. Today, approximately 6 percent of food stamp purchases across the nation go to soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages defined by the USDA as having "minimal nutritious value." In New York City, that’s somewhere between $75 and $135 million a year—a lot of money for products that do nothing to help the program meet its goal of improving nutrition for those in need.

If the USDA approves this measure, the benefits now being spent on soda and sugar drinks would instead go towards the purchase of healthier foods and drinks that provide actual nutrition. That means more assistance, and fewer preventable health problems, for low-income New Yorkers.

More than half of adults in New York City are overweight or obese, and diabetes causes more than 22,300 hospitalizations annually. A full 46 percent of those hospitalized live in low-income neighborhoods. As startling as the number of New Yorkers with diabetes and obesity-related illnesses is, so is the price tag for taxpayers. Obesity-related illnesses cost New York State residents nearly $8 billion in medical costs each year through public programs like Medicaid and Medicare.

A common argument against this proposal is that it would stigmatize food stamp recipients and discourage participation. But food stamps already can't be used to purchase certain products, including beer, wine, liquor, hot prepared foods, and cigarettes. These exceptions have not discouraged people from enrolling in the program, and the use of the Electronic Benefits card (EBT) has made purchasing products with food stamps much easier and more seamless for recipients and retailers.

Some people have also voiced concern about how this would affect retailers around the city. But food stamp benefits will not be reduced, and people will continue to spend those benefits in the same places they always have – they'll just be spending them on other products. Certainly there will be an adjustment period as stores and consumers become accustomed to this change. But from bodegas to supermarkets to the pharmacy down the street, retailers will adjust.

This initiative is another logical step in the city’s comprehensive approach to increase access to healthy foods in the neighborhoods where they’ve traditionally been hard to find. These efforts include the Health Bucks program, which provides a financial incentive for food stamp beneficiaries to purchase fruits and vegetables in farmers markets, the Green Carts and Healthy Bodegas programs, which aim to increase access and supply to nutritious foods in low-income neighborhoods, and an education program through New York State’s Eat Smart New York, which helps thousands of people every year make healthier food choices.

So let’s give this proposal a try. By eliminating the purchase of soda with food stamps, we can improve the health of families. And that’s something all New Yorkers can stand behind.

Joel Berg

Executive Director, NYC Coalition Against Hunger

Well-heeled conservatives and progressives always seem to unite on one issue: dictating that poor people should behave more virtuously than they themselves do.
This is just another example of the nation’s “do as we say, not as we do” attitude towards poor people.

Pushing to ban either soda or all junk foods in SNAP, let’s examine why such bans would be both unworkable and counter-productive. With billions of dollars at stake, the battle to define what “junk” food is would be epic, with nutrition experts pitted against food-industry lobbyists, slugging it out one food item at a time. There would be protracted battles every year as new products are introduced and as the ingredients of existing products changed, requiring a massive government bureaucracy.

Beyond sending the appalling message to low-income Americans that they are uniquely unsuited to make decisions about what is best for their own health, banning certain foods in the SNAP Program will fail to meet the anti-obesity objectives of proponents. There is no evidence that low-income people who receive SNAP benefits shop any less nutritiously than others with similar low incomes. The problem isn’t that they make poor choices – the problem is that they can’t afford to make better choices.

According to USDA, in 2008, 49 million Americans lived in households that were “food insecure,” meaning they couldn’t afford all the food their families needed. These households spent an average of $12 per person per week less on food than their food secure counterparts. That $12 often is the difference between being able to purchase food that is more nutritious but more expensive and food that is cheaper but less healthy.

The average SNAP allotment now equals only $1.48 per meal. When I recently lived for five days on the allotment of food I could purchase under SNAP, I was unable to afford a single piece of fruit. I wanted to buy whole wheat pasta, but even on sale, at $1.50 a box, it was just too expensive, and I could only afford white pasta at 59 cents a box.

It is no wonder that obesity and hunger are flip sides of the same coin of food unaffordability, which explains why the urban neighborhoods that have the highest levels of poverty and food insecurity also tend to have the highest rates of obesity.

Ban proponents assume that, if we just eliminate a few “bad foods” from our diets, we will all be healthier. That’s bunk. Good nutrition and healthy weight are all about balance and adopting improved eating and exercise habits for a lifetime.

A much better approach than taxing or banning so-called bad foods is doing far more to make healthier food affordable and physically available for struggling families. Government should accelerate its efforts to enable more farmers’ markets, produce stands, and full service supermarkets to locate in low-income neighborhoods and ensure that they accept SNAP benefits

Maria Muentes

This proposal may make sense for people who have distance from people who actually receive food stamps, if you have ever received food stamps you would know how degrading it is to have decisions that are pre made for you. Of course soda is not good for anyone, that's already been established, the idea that government would be educating these wayward poor people is an insulting, if old familiar one. If you are really concerned about the health or wellness of people who receive food stamps how about increasing the amount of savings that you can have and still receive food stamps so that people can actually save and build some wealth? Everyone knows that there is a correlation between money and health until you address that this measure is nothing more than another patronizing act of a clueless governor under a billionaire.

Spence Halperin

Spence Halperin

Licensed Social Workers and Nonprofit Consultant

While I support the intent of this proposal I believe it crosses a line. A key principle of effecting behavior change is empowering people with the information and resources they need to effectuate better decisions on their own. I fear that this mandate, if enacted, will be counterproductive to another goal, that of helping people achieve financial independence. Paternalism is not at all empowering as we have learned.

It is acceptable, in my opinion, to prohibit the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes with food stamps since these are not legitimate food products by the common definition of the term. But sugary soft drinks are still defined by the larger American population as a food product and if I am able to make the unfortunate decision to buy Coke or Pepsi with my own earned income, I think low income people should have the same opportunity.

A fairer way to achieve the goal of reduced use of sugary drinks would be to tax all sugary drinks, like we do cigarettes, which has proven to be an effective solution to a reduction in smoking. I urge the administration to consider redoubling its efforts to implement this tax while increasing public education regarding the health repercussions of drinking too much sugar. Let's not treat our low-income neighbors like children if we are unwilling to be treated that way ourselves.


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