Last week, Mayor Bloomberg of New York sought federal permission to ban the purchase of soda (and other sugary drinks) with food stamps. The request was the next big step in the city’s anti-obesity campaign. All weekend, the media has been lit up with arguments both criticizing and supporting the proposal.
Personally, I’m all for it. Alcohol, cigarettes, and prepared foods are already banned, and I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to add soda to that list. Aside from calories, soda does not provide any other nutrition—that makes it hard to see it as a food, in my opinion. Yes, there are other sources of empty calories you can still buy with food stamps, but few are as blatantly unnecessary.
While it could be inferred that the administration is stereotyping food stamp recipients as junk food eaters, I think there are more important things to focus on. I understand the argument that this further stigmatizes low-income individuals, but with the number of food stamp recipients growing, a lot of the accompanying stigma has abated.
Though I have a positive outlook on nutrition education programs in general, I’m skeptical as to whether campaigns attempting to dissuade food stamp recipients from buying sugary drinks would actually work.With obesity rates high all over the country and higher than the national average in certain New York City neighborhoods, what we’ve been doing clearly hasn’t been working, and before trying to scrounge up the funding for more nutrition education programs, how about we try something a little different?
Tracking soda purchases, BMI and other factors would allow us to see whether the restrictions are beneficial and appropriate for national implementation. As mentioned in an article that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal, there are roughly 1.7 million food-stamp recipients in New York City, and federal officials say that nationally, sugary beverages account for about 6% of food-stamp purchases.
“In spite of the great gains we’ve made over the past eight years in making our communities healthier, there are still two areas where we’re losing ground — obesity and diabetes,” the mayor said in a statement. “This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment.”
My hope is that spending less of their food stamp money on soda would encourage consumers to purchase healthier, nourishing foods rather than processed snacks. With the $1.50 a 2-liter bottle of soda costs, you can get milk or beans or soup or fruit or vegetables, pasta, a loaf of bread and many other things. Sure, you could also buy lots and lots of Ramen, but even that’s better than Coke or Kool-Aid. You can always add vegetables to Ramen—it’s hard to do that to a cup of sugar.
The Bloomberg administration has asked the federal government for a two-year ban. I don’t see anything wrong with giving it a shot and checking in later. New York has been at the forefront of several other important health legislature such as calorie labeling and the trans fat ban. While there were some initial grumbles about freedom of choice, these programs have had many positive effects.
Personally, in the interest of public health, I’m okay with stepping on a few toes and pissing a few people off in the short term. If, however, the federal government decides that taking soda off the food stamp shopping list is violating some kind of right to sabotage one’s health as one sees fit, there could be some type of incentive for shoppers to purchase non-caloric beverages?
This may sound a little austere, but I wish we were more in the habit of viewing our health as a social responsibility. I always go back to the idea that a country is only as healthy as its citizens—how can we expect a society to function well if its inhabitants are in poor health? Or why not make it even simpler by saying that it’s hard to take care of other people if you can’t take care of yourself? But then the question becomes something like, “Well, why should I take care of myself, then, in hopes of avoiding chronic diseases that other people’s tax dollars would essentially end up paying to treat if my tax dollars are already paying for someone else’s preventable chronic disease?”
Just food for thought. I’m really curious to see what happens with this!