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Food fight: Mayor, governor attempt to ban food stamp soda purchases

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/12/2011, 5:24 p.m.

If Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson get their way, the 1.7 million people in the city who use food stamps will not be able to buy sugary drinks like soda.

The governor and mayor unveiled the initiative last week and are petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban the purchase of drinks that contain high amounts of sugar using food stamps, citing it would cut down on obesity and other health problems in the state.

Currently, alcohol and cigarettes cannot be bought using SNAP/food stamp benefits.

Reports indicate that the ban would last two years to see how effective taking out sugary beverages would be on childhood obesity and diabetes. Both the mayor and governor say that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest single contributor to the obesity epidemic.

Americans consume an average of 200 to 300 more calories each day than 30 years ago. Nearly half of these calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks, which can contain as many as 16 packets of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle and a staggering 26 packets in a 32-ounce serving.

"The use of food stamp benefits to support the purchase of sugar-sweetened drinks not only contradicts the intent of this vital program, but it also subsidizes a serious public health epidemic," Paterson said. "We are helping record numbers of low-income families put food on the table, and we are very proud of that accomplishment, but there is clear evidence that low-income individuals have higher rates of obesity and are more at risk of becoming obese than other groups."

The governor also added that preventable health problems are costing the state. Nearly half of the $147 billion spent nationally on treatment per year for heart disease and cancer is paid by Medicaid and Medicare.

Bloomberg said that obesity and diabetes are two areas where the city is "losing ground" when it comes to making the city healthier. The city has already attempted to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to disadvantaged communities. Food pantries in the city currently adhere to a dietary standard that doesn't include sugary drinks.

"We have to continue developing new strategies and initiatives to complement what has already been done," Bloomberg said. "And that's why we are looking to eliminate sugary beverages from allowable food stamp purchases. This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on food and drinks that provide real nourishment."

However, critics of the proposed ban say that low-income New Yorkers are being targeted and used in an experiment. Many say that lawmakers are making different standards for the poor.

"This is yet another instance of America's 'do as we say, not as we do' approach towards poor people," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH). According to Berg, the USDA will be forced to reject the ban because it has no authority to ban foods, including soda.

"Not only is banning soft drink purchases by SNAP recipients telling low-income Americans that they are uniquely unsuited to make decisions about what is best for their own health, this proposed ban will fail to meet the proponents' anti-obesity objectives," he said.

Berg added that there is no evidence that suggests that low-income New Yorkers on food stamps shop less nutritionally than those that aren't. He believes the problem isn't making bad food choices, but not being able to afford healthy ones.

Rather than banning sugary beverages, NYCCAH suggests that the state make healthier food more affordable. According to NYCCAH, low-income New Yorkers are likely to buy fresh food from community gardens and farmer's markets when it's affordable.

"Forbidding the use of SNAP benefits to purchase an occasional soft drink may make the non-poor feel more noble, but it will fail to reduce obesity," said Berg. "A much fairer alternative is to increase the purchasing power of SNAP and ensure that more stores both accept those benefits and stock healthier foods that operate in poor neighborhoods."