Food stamps for soda

Food Stamps for Soda

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”, formerly called “Food Stamps”) serves nearly 46 million Americans a year.  That means about one in seven Americans are now getting government assistance to buy food through this program (the number has been climbing steadily, up from about 27 million around this time in 2007).

The average monthly benefits per person are now $133.80.  Multiply that out and it means we’re spending over $65 Billion a year on SNAP (and the numbers are growing every month: It’ll be over $70 Billion for 2011).

I’m certainly not opposed to ensuring that nutritious food is available to every person, but it sure seems to me that the entire SNAP program is a band-aid, not a solution to the underlying issues. But that’s a topic for another time.

The part that I am opposed to?  Of that $65 Billion, about $4 Billion goes to buy soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

So first we subsidize the production of corn, which allows us to produce high fructose corn syrup at an incredibly low cost. Then we turn it into nutritionally-devoid sugar-water, and give people money to buy the stuff. About half of that money goes back to the manufacturers — so we’re subsidizing these companies on both ends, and all the while we’re in the middle of an obesity and health crisis!

It just doesn’t make sense.

Last October, New York asked the USDA (which administers the SNAP program) to try an experiment. They wanted to disallow the usage of SNAP benefits for purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages.

A few days ago, the USDA rejected their request. The primary reason?  “Too complex.” (I’m paraphrasing). Their rejection letter [PDF] does go on to make some valid points, but in my opinion, none of them should have been dealbreakers.

It’s important to note that there are already other limits on what can be purchased with SNAP benefits (alcohol, cigarettes, foods that will be eaten in the store, and more).  Many of the rules don’t make much, if any, sense from a nutritional standpoint. For a great first-hand example of this irony, read this incredible story of Chicken vs. Twinkies from Kimberly at Poor Girl Eats Well.

I also dug up this 2007 PDF, in which the USDA makes their case against restricting the use of food stamp benefits. So it seems the USDA had already dug their heels in on this issue awhile back — and still took nearly a year to reply to Mayor Bloomberg’s request.

Interestingly, in their rejection letter, they point out that they prefer incentive-based solutions, and specifically reference a pilot program in Massachusettes that “increases SNAP benefits when fruits and vegetables are purchased.”  (Great!).  Implementing an incentive program such as that sounds about as complicated as the one Mayor Bloomberg proposed — which pretty much invalidates their “it’s too hard!” argument.

Moreover, the USDA also administers the excellent Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. WIC participants “receive checks or other vouchers to purchase specific foods each month that are designed to supplement their diets with specific nutrients.”

It’s a worthy list, and includes “infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, and canned fish. Soy-based beverages, tofu, fruits and vegetables, baby foods, wholewheat bread, and other whole-grain options were recently added to better meet the nutritional needs of WIC participants.” (Source, PDF)

So it seems the USDA is talking out of both sides of its mouth. They claim that they don’t have the ability to restrict what food stamps should be used for (even though they already do have some restrictions), and that it wouldn’t be effective anyway.  On the other side, they administer the WIC program, quite effectively, which does exactly that.

(In case you’re wondering, in 2010 the WIC program, which is funded differently than SNAP, had about 9 million participants, at a total cost of about $6.7 Billion.)

Obviously, this one change proposed by New York would not have been enough to combat obesity in America on it’s own — that’s just silly. The USDA points out that it might not have a significant impact (or even could have some negative impacts). But when the negative impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages are already so well-known, it sure sounds like lunacy not to at least try it.

Considering that it’s supposed to be “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance,” and that soda has no nutritional merit whatsoever, I’m really struggling to see any valid reason why people participating in SNAP should be allowed to use their benefits to purchase it.

What do you think?

I tried to keep this post brief, since this topic is already being covered quite well. I recommend reading these excellent articles by Megan CottrellTom Laskawy, and Andy Fisher for more.

Want to hear something positive about SNAP?  Recipients can use their benefits to to buy seeds and plants which produce food to eat. Nice.

Photo courtesy of The California Center for Public Health Advocacy, on Twitter at @CCPHA

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