Each year, 6% of all food stamp purchases, or $4 billion, is spent on sugary drinks, the largest source of empty calories in the American diet. In an effort to combat the epidemic of obesity, which disproportionately afflicts low-income Americans, several states and New York City have attempted to ban the purchase of these beverages with food stamps. In each case, however, the Food and Drug Administration, which administers the food stamp program, has blocked these efforts.
On April 19, a panel of experts from government, media and academia assembled at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health to discuss the pros and cons of modifying the nation's food stamp program in ways that might help combat obesity. The debate was lively.
On the panel were Mr.Mark Bittman, food columnist for The New York Times; Mr.Edward Cooney, Executive Director, Congressional Hunger Center; Mr. Gary Jenkins, who heads New York City’s food stamp program as Assistant Deputy Commissioner, Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services; and Dr. Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, Professor of Health Policy and Management, Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Linda Fried, Dean, moderated the panel and NYC Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene Dr. Thomas A. Farley offered commentary.
Reconfiguring the food stamp program—known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—would be in keeping with educational efforts and the bans on sugary drinks in schools and could improve the health of more than 46 million Americans who use the funds to purchase groceries. However, critics counter that the proposed changes could further stigmatize food stamps at a time when the program is underutilized and threatened and could lead to a slippery slope of defining acceptable and unacceptable foods.
Among the points made at the discussion were these:
- Historically, the program that evolved into SNAP permitted the purchase of a very limited number of staple foods like flour and cooking oil, so there is a precedent for restricting what can bought. Even today, some items are not permitted, such as hot foods and beer and alcohol. Panelist Mark Bittman challenged the idea that soda should be considered a food, given its lack of nutritional value.
- There is no hard proof that the food stamp program contributes to obesity, though several experts on the panel believe this is likely. They note that there is a pattern of buying highly processed, non-perishable food to last the month (the stamps are issued monthly) and that such foods tend to be less healthy and higher in calories than fresh foods.
- Congress is currently considering a bill to cut $33 billion from SNAP, potentially ending benefits for two million people and reducing benefits for the remaining 44 million people who use the program. Limiting food stamps to buy certain foods could lead to a 'good food' 'bad food' list and cause people to drop out of the program, putting families at risk for hunger.
- Some experts see sugary drinks as “the tobacco of the 21st century.” They see a need to regulate it as a harmful substance and the SNAP program would be one place to start.
- Opponents to changing the food stamp program cite concerns about stigmatizing the poor at the checkout line. Commissioner Jenkins noted, however, that it’s very difficult to see who is using food stamps, because the transactions are done using a swipe card.
- In his closing remarks, Dr. Farley said that the real political opposition to this ban is the beverage industry. On the issue of stigma, he concluded by saying, “We are in favor of stigmatizing a product. We are not in favor of stigmatizing people."