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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Derek
September 24, 2011 10:17 pm

This is off point, but I have to disagree about Oreos tasting good. I do know people who do like Oreos, but they’re like 9 years old.

Jessica @ Glaze
September 21, 2011 2:42 pm

Oh Andrew I am with you all the way! here I am actually spending more money for my healthy food while there are obese people in line with their chunky kids getting free Oreos whom I will also have to eventually pay for their free healthcare down the road. I think beer could be considered a form of food. It is quite filling and does have more nutrition than soda 🙂 I also think that if anyone is given government assistance they should undergo a drug test.

factchecker
factchecker
September 24, 2011 6:53 am

Just because Oreo’s taste good does not mean its junk compared to dole’s peach chunkes in syrup

factchecker
factchecker
September 10, 2011 5:29 am

The author did not tell the complete story, bloomberg would ban any drink with more than 10 calories of sugar , including gatorade, vitamin water, lemondade, and many other drinks, but not shakes,juices
calling it a “soda ban” is misleading when diet soda would be allowed,
the problem with soda is sugar excess sugar,same with white bread, yet it is a food, fruit juices have been linked too, but no mention.

factchecker
factchecker
September 24, 2011 6:50 am
Reply to  Andrew

It can’t be a good start if there is no end , and singling out one product over the other is bad politics, would vitamin water be allowed since it has nutritional value, also sugar is food.

factchecker
factchecker
October 4, 2011 7:19 am
Reply to  factchecker

Wic is a meal plan for infants and children, teenagers and adults have varying diet plans, you wouldn’t expect a miner or a courier or a bike messenger. to eat wic food with few calories, on the other hand a secretary maybe.

factchecker
factchecker
October 4, 2011 7:19 am
Reply to  Andrew

Also soda is food, sugar, just like butter excess is bad.

factchecker
factchecker
October 4, 2011 7:34 am
Reply to  Andrew

The naturally occurring is a unsettled debate as many foods have additives and are fortified, however in this sense its a cover, most advocates for soda taxes hardly consider juice taxes,

factchecker
factchecker
September 10, 2011 5:27 am

Which healthy rewards card, soda is food, alcohol is not, butter is food, its the excess fat and sugar that makes it bad, nfl and gatorade

factchecker
factchecker
September 24, 2011 6:51 am
Reply to  Andrew

Sugar is food, just like fat and butter.

Mike S
Mike S
September 27, 2011 12:01 pm
Reply to  Andrew

In all seriousness, beer is food — it’s like a liquid loaf of bread. True fact: the slaves who built the pyramids in Egypt were given beer as sustenance.

factchecker
factchecker
October 4, 2011 7:20 am
Reply to  Mike S

There is a debate about whether alcoholic beverages are food, since the way it is broken down, its more about public policy

Derek
August 31, 2011 6:45 am

I went in to a Rite Aid a couple of weeks ago and bought a bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum and a 2 liter Coke. The lady behind me asked me if I had my Healthy Rewards card. I smiled and asked if the Healthy Rewards covered booze and soda. She said not the booze, just the soda. She couldn’t even say it without laughing.

factchecker
factchecker
August 30, 2011 10:30 pm

The SNAP program is designed for folks to independently cook meals, unlike WIC, SNAP is broad based, you cannot compare SNAP to WIC, because WIC is not designed for those with diverse lifestyles, a blue collar construction worker on foods or somebody who atleast does not have a completely sedentary lifestyle should not be denied soda,juice,etc The USDA was right to reject the ban, why allow sugary juices/dairy and not anything else, its true that soda has little else than sugar, but its no different than many other foods, and vitaminwater has added nutrients but folks usually don’t need it. Take a taco for example, sour cream,chips,unlean beef,cheese,etc is a high calorie food, however its fine for certain occupations, the taxpayer argument is ridiculous do we restrict what public employees can purchase with the money,doughnut v. bagel with cheese for example is a classic example on how propaganda is used,… Read more »

Ashley
Ashley
August 30, 2011 7:31 pm

I am also on the “Snap” program and although I greatly appreciate the states’ help in feeding me and my kids, I do agree there needs to be more education. The only nutritional help I have ever recieved is in a nutrition class I am currently taking. I had no idea how poorly I was feeding my children and I am currently trying to correct years of bad habits. I wonder how many people out there are in the same position as me.

Michelle
Michelle
August 29, 2011 7:03 am

I know a lot of people worry about big brother telling them what to do but I feel like if you are going to take public assistance, there should probably be some strings attached to that. These programs are supposed to be temporary assistance, not a permanent solution, right? I also think that part of the program – SNAP, WIC, etc. – should be education. Just my 2 cents…

Mike S
Mike S
September 27, 2011 11:58 am
Reply to  Michelle

This is a great point. To illustrate, let’s say I live large, party a lot, sleep late, don’t do housework, etc. Then I lose my job, am down on my luck, and have to move back in with my parents until I get back on my feet. I’m relying on their support, in their house, so I have to live by their rules (no partying, I have to do chores, etc.). If I don’t like it, then that’s all the more incentive for me to get back to supporting myself. Same goes with government welfare programs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling people how they can and cannot spend money they receive from the government. If they don’t like it, then that’s more incentive to get off welfare.

Korla
Korla
September 29, 2011 7:02 am
Reply to  Michelle

I get your concern – and I admit that I’m really conflicted on this issue. But the thing is, this is about the 78th in a LONG line of strings attached to receiving benefits. If this string disappeared, there would still be an immense tangle of strings in place that have to do with assets you’re allowed to have, residence, etc. My internal conflict goes like this: Like others have said, it is really paternalistic to assume that folks who aren’t on SNAP/WIC/other assistance are so self-actualized that they get to pull all of the strings that exist and add more every time new health information comes out. If a person on SNAP wants to have a beer at the end of a long-ass day at work, they should have as much right as I do. I’m a volunteer in an AmeriCorps-like program that, up until last year, received a… Read more »

factchecker
factchecker
October 4, 2011 7:28 am
Reply to  Korla

Exactly, it is paternalistic , WIC for instance is paternalistic its for children and infants not an adult, as an corps volunteer should you have the same diet as a secretary, absolutely not,

Hey folks, we are going to a host a taxpayer funding sports game,
awesome, let’s get the gatorade, oh wait, no, it has sugar, but we can give the fruit juices with 3x the sugar. Sound ridiculous
it is, sugar is food, it gives energy, carbs break down into it,sugar is necessary for survival, no sugary drinks may not be the best way to get needs and calories but it is food, one issue not discussed is convenience stores and selling those items, given that to be a retailer you need to sell staples.

Lau@CorridorKitchen
October 9, 2011 7:02 pm
Reply to  Korla

This:
‘We ALL receive public assistance in some way, shape, or form.’

Xan from Mahlzeit
August 28, 2011 3:21 pm

I think telling poor people how to spend money is paternalistic and disrespectful; it’s like giving a street person a hand out and then telling them “now don’t spend it liquor.” You are not their mother, they are free adults, and it’s none of your business how they spend money, even when it’s food stamps, and therefore somehow yours rather than theirs.

Further, if you’re going to restrict “junk food” from food stamps, you might as well restrict all processed foods, since there isn’t all that much difference between a coca cola and jar of cheap grape jelly, or worse, a “Lunchable” child’s meal these days, as far as nutritional value goes.

factchecker
factchecker
September 24, 2011 7:04 am

The difference is taxpayer funds are being used, but yes junk is hard to define, for instance is mott’s apple sauce or dole’s syrup better than soda, no.

Lau@CorridorKitchen
October 9, 2011 7:01 pm
Reply to  factchecker

I am so sick of that logic. It’s not taxpayer money, don’t you see? Once you use that money to fund something IT CEASES TO BE YOUR MONEY. And yes, I’m with Xan, how someone spends their money, however they got it, is none of your business.

Whatever
Whatever
April 26, 2012 5:15 pm

If someone says to me, “I am hungry and have no money to feed my family”, and I give them $20 for food, I darn well have the right to be pissed if they use it on soda, despite the fact that it is no longer mine once I give it away.

Saying something is taxpayer money does not mean it belongs to an individual, but to the collective “taxpayer” who has the right to vote and decide how the money should be spent. If there was a vote up for whether my kids’ school should get more funding or whether Mrs. Lazypants down the street should get soda, I vote for the money to go to the school.