The Tale of David and the Soda Industry: The Battle Against Using Food Stamps for Soda

By Katie Andrews

A “David and Goliath” story is typically thought of as a battle between unequal participants, one (David) of particular lesser size or strength and one (Goliath) as a shoo-in competitor. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not thought of as your typical David. Unless, of course, the Goliath he has challenged is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In late August, the USDA rejected the Mayor’s proposed plan to ban the use of food stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, to purchase soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages in New York City. The ban was part of a two-year experiment that the Mayor had proposed as a way to fight the city’s increasing obesity epidemic.

The reasoning behind the Mayor’s focus on obesity in New York City is easily understood when considering a few basic statistics:

Now, the connection between these three metrics, the number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits and the number of obese children and adults, is difficult to measure, and that is the exact excuse that the USDA made in stating why they would not approve a ban on soda purchased with SNAP benefits – there is no way to measure if the ban would have any effect.

However, the connection between obesity and the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is not difficult to measure, and has been widely accepted throughout the fields of nutrition and health for many years. A 2009 study in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that prospective, cross-sectional, and longitudinal studies have all found an association between consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and an increase in body weight, even when those studies were funded by the beverage industry.

So, Who Has the Power to Make the Change?

The role of the Secretary of Agriculture, a seat currently held by Tom Vilsack, is partially defined by the USDA as “working to improve the health of America’s children, targeting child hunger and obesity with efforts to encourage balanced meals, nutritious eating and increased physical activity.” The Harvard School of Public Health reports that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages increases the risks for Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Shouldn’t the desire to ban these beverages, responsible for attributing to both the childhood obesity epidemic and the increase in Type 2 diabetes prevalence, fall directly under Vilsack’s jurisdiction?

In 2008, the Farm Bill authorized $20 billion for pilot projects to determine if using point-of-sale financial incentives would help increase the sales of fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods by SNAP recipients. The Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) allows SNAP-users purchasing these more healthful foods to earn an incentive of up to 30% of what they spent on the approved foods. This program, while beneficial, is a pilot study that will take place in only one area: Hampden, MA. The pilot will affect only the selected 7,500 of the 50,000 Hampden, MA households receiving SNAP benefits. In order to measure the impact, another 7,500 households will not be given incentives and will act as a control group.

A soda ban in New York City would affect over 1.7 million SNAP recipients. The logistics of the program may have been more complicated; how do you define which beverages are banned and which are not, as they would somehow need to be coded. But the overall benefits of the ban seem to grossly outweigh the difficulties of initial implementation. When you consider that $20 billion has been allocated to measure change in 7,500 households, the obvious question must be: why are we focusing on one population that measures less than 1% of the SNAP recipients of New York City?

Do We Have a Right to Soda?

The most controversial point of the ban has actually brought together the least likely team: the high-powered lobbyists of the soda industry and the New York City Coalition of Hunger, speaking on behalf of the poor and unfed. Their argument: who is the USDA, the Mayor, or we to say what someone receiving SNAP benefits can or cannot buy? The fundamental fact is that SNAP isn’t a meal you pick up every evening; it is a debit card system that allows you to make your own food choices for you and your family.

However, consider this: SNAP is funded by the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) of the USDA. The FNS also funds Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program, School Meals Program (including the National School Lunch Program), Child and Adult Care Food program, Food Assistance for Disaster Relief and Foods Distribution Program. Many of those programs have limitations on what funding can and cannot be used for. And with all those mouths to feed, don’t we all have a say in the quality of the foods that money goes towards?

Every person, whether or not they are receiving assistance, has the right to choose how he eats. The goal of SNAP is to “help put healthy food on the table for over 40 million people each month.” In order for that statement to be true, SNAP benefits should not be used for what is considered to potentially be the greatest contributor to childhood obesity in our country.

*Image credits from NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Katie Andrews is a 2nd year dual Nutrition Communications/DPD student at the Friedman School.  She is the current Editor-in-Chief of The Sprout and is passionate about getting accurate, science-based nutrition information into consumer’s hands. As ‘The Aspiring RD,’ she blogs about current nutrition news, ways to stay healthy and fit in Boston, and the interesting and delicious foods that cross her path. Find her at www.theaspiringrd.com.

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