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NY Times: Plan to Ban Food Stamps for Sodas Has Hurdles

October 8, 2010

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg may face legal and political hurdles in carrying out his ambitious plan to bar food-stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy sugar-sweetened drinks, food policy experts said Thursday.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at a press conference announcing a proposal to bar the city’s food-stamp recipients from using them to buy sugared drinks.

New York City on Wednesday asked the United States Department of Agriculture for permission to conduct a two-year experiment barring the city’s 1.7 million users of food stamps from spending them on soda and other beverages with added sugar. But experts said that the Agriculture Department lacked the authority to grant such permission, and that the proposal would require Congress to change laws governing the food-stamp program.

Congress has considered the idea before, said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who served in the federal Agriculture Department from 1993 to 2001. “They considered doing it and decided not to,” he said. “What you can purchase and not purchase in the food-stamp program is described in extraordinary detail by federal law.”

Mr. Berg said the definition of food for purposes of the food-stamp program had not changed since 1977: “any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption.”

The Agriculture Department would not say Thursday whether it would, or could, grant the mayor’s request. But it rejected a similar proposal from Minnesota in 2004 on several grounds, including a couple that might seem germane: that food-stamp rules would be inconsistent across state lines, and that it would perpetuate a stigma that food-stamp recipients are not capable of making buying decisions.

Robert Doar, the city’s human resources commissioner, said the New York proposal was different because Minnesota was seeking a permanent change, while New York is seeking a two-year “waiver” to study whether a ban would lead food-stamp users to buy more milk, fruits and vegetables, and whether it would improve their health.

The city also argued, in its application, that the Agriculture Department had set a precedent by prohibiting sodas in the school breakfast and lunch program.

Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization, said debates over whether to restrict food-stamp purchases extended to the program’s inception in the 1960s, when there were questions about whether to allow the purchase of so-called luxury foods. “They decided not to go the way of restricting within those foods,” Ms. Vollinger said.

“To start deciding good food-bad food, it’s not consistent with any of the dietary guidelines, and it moves people away from being regular consumers,” she said.

The Citizens’ Committee for Children and the United Way of New York City lined up behind the mayor’s proposal Thursday, saying it would help reduce obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, also endorsed the proposal, noting that while it was unclear to what extent soft drink consumption by food-stamp recipients contributed to obesity, the plan might provide useful data.

Last month, however, the center’s executive director, Michael F. Jacobson, in an editorial he co-wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, took a more skeptical view, warning that limiting food-stamp purchases to more healthful food would face intense and probably fatal opposition from food manufacturers.

The editorial suggested alternatives like lifting a federal prohibition on using food-stamp funds for educational campaigns that disparage specific foods. Because of that rule, the article said, the Agriculture Department had stopped health officials in Maine, San Francisco, California and Wyoming from using food-stamp money to discourage the consumption of soft drinks.

The government does not track what food stamps are spent on, but researchers have looked at the food-buying habits of low-income families. One study found that poor households spend nearly 40 percent of their food budget on items not recommended for frequent consumption by government nutritionists. More than a fifth of those purchases involved sweetened beverages, according to the report published by Mathematica Policy Research, a public policy research company working on behalf of the Agriculture Department.

Robert Gebeloff contributed reporting.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010 4:50 pm

    This contraversy with Bloomberg has nothing to do with the consumers health. It’s all about collecting yet another tax for NYC. It was tried before to tax Sodas but public outcry came into play. Now he found a way to get the tax on the soda by removing it from Food stamps and he insults our intelligence by trying to make us think he cares about our health. Does he also think we are too stupid to figure out his angle? Just another way of hurting low income people. You can bet that anything our mayor gets involved in has nothing to do with our better interest and that it ‘s about the almighty dollar.

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