Anti-hunger, pro-soda: Are you kidding me?

About one in seven Americans — 46 million of us — get help from SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. The government spent about $78 billion on SNAP last year. Participants collect about $133 per person per month. SNAP is a valuable safety net that deserves support, for many reasons, outlined here.

But, by  some unverified estimates, about $4 billion of SNAP money [distributed via electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards] is spent on soda; the government won’t say how much is spent on soda, or anything else. Reasonable people can disagree about whether soda should be taxes. But it’s hard to see why we should be subsidizing it.

It’s no surprise that Coke, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association oppose efforts to stop SNAP money from being used to buy sweetened, carbonated drinks. But they are joined in their opposition by anti-hunger groups like Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center, as writer-consultant Michele Simon noted in her recent report,  Food Stamps: Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans? [PDF, download]

Do these advocacy groups really believe that poor people in America will be better off if they can use SNAP benefits to buy soda?

Or are they being swayed by the money they get from the food industry?

I’ve asked Feeding America and FRAC to explain why they oppose restrictions on SNAP benefits, and whether they are compromised by their food-industry funding.

Ross Fraser, a Feeding America spokesman, replied by email:

Feeding America has consistently opposed efforts to restrict the ability of SNAP recipients to make individual decisions regarding the types of foods they purchase for themselves and their families using their SNAP benefits. Working with a coalition of other advocacy organizations, food manufacturers, and retailers – including the Food Research and Action Center, the Congressional Hunger Center, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Beverage Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, and the Food Marketing Institute – Feeding America has advocated on Capitol Hill and with the Administration for policies that strengthen access to SNAP benefits for low-income individuals, promote benefit adequacy, and protect the program from unnecessary stigma.

FRAC hasn’t responded at all, despite several requests for comment.

The arguments about giving SNAP recipients the freedom “to make individual decisions regarding the types of foods they purchase” don’t make sense to me, for a couple of reasons. First, and most important, carbonated soft drinks aren’t food. The N is SNAP stands for nutrition. Second, SNAP benefits are already restricted. People can’t buy tobacco, alcoholic beverages, supplement pills, hot prepared foods, and non-food items with SNAP benefits. Adding soda to the list would hardly create an “unnecessary stigma” or add complexity to the program–another argument advanced by those who oppose restrictions.

What’s more, school breakfast and lunch programs, which are also administered by USDA, comply with nutrition standards that exclude soda, as they should. So does the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is limited to foods that deliver health benefits to pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children.

Feeding America–an important nonprofit that distributes 3 billion tons of food a year through its network of food banks–depends on the generosity of the food industry for its work. Its “leadership partners” include ConAgra Food,  Food Lion LLC, General Mills, Idol Gives Back, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods and Kraft Foods Foundation, Kroger, The Lincy Foundation, Nestle, Pepsico, Procter & Gamble, The Starr Foundation, SUPERVALU, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation. Some of those donors probably don’t care if SNAP funds are restricted, but others clearly do.

FRAC’s supporters include the foundations of Kraft, General Mills and ConAgra.  As I reported the other day, a FRAC fund-raising dinner earlier this month was supported by the  American Beverage Association, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, Inc., Mars Incorporated and Nestlé USA, among others.

It’s not just Feeding America and FRAC that benefit from beverage industry donations. Through its foundation, Coca-Cola has given money to American Academy of Family Physicians and American Academy of Pediatric Dentists–groups that, under other circumstances, might be critical of soda consumption. Its foundation also gave money to the NAACP for a program called Project HELP (Healthy Eating, Lifestyles and Physical Activity).

Obesity is serious business, folks. That’s why Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, has proposed restricting the sizes of soft drink containers. Last year, he tried to get a waiver from USDA to see what would happen if SNAP funds could not be used to by soda, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack turned him down. To grasp the scale of the problem in the US’s biggest city, check out  a city report titled  “Reversing the Epidemic: The New York City Obesity Task Force Plan to Prevent and Control Obesity”.  It calls obesity New York City’s “most serious and rapidly growing health problem,” saying it kills 5,800 residents a year.  Being overweight or obese is “now the norm in our city,” the report says.  Black, Latino and low-income communities are among the hardest hit.

A final point: Getting people to drink less soda won’t end the obesity crisis, as the American Beverage Association never tires of pointing out. (See this and this.) A far more comprehensive approach will be needed. But right now, the government encourages soda purchases–by permitting them to be part of SNAP, as well as by subsidizing the corn industry, whose high fructose corn syrup is the most popular sweetener used in soft drinks. This does no one any good, except, of course, the beverage industry.


  1. Darren Toth says

    Years ago I had decided to pull HFCS out of my diet…in other words, I don’t have many choices for food and beverages at the store. I went through a period of years where I ate whatever I wanted, got what was cheaper rather than what was healthier, and I have to say, it profoundly affects what things taste like, and also how much you care about your diet and your health. That is the biggest hurdle–getting people to want to eat healthy food and enjoy eating it, much less making it so they can afford it. In my more gluttonous days, raisins tasted like stale rat poop and Sports drinks were too bland…now raisin explode with sugary flavor and anything besides water or ice tea tastes like heavy syrup to me. The point I am making is that people would eat healthier, if they had not ruined their palate with years of thick sweeteners, and become apathetic because their poor health and sluggish metabolisms make it so they don’t really care.
    We are saving money feeding ourselves garbage, and this garbage is killing us. I understand how difficult a task it is to feed the World, but one thing seems clear to me: we are doing it wrong.

  2. Warren Goldstein says

    This is great stuff, Marc. You’ve lifted a large rock off of the sugared beverage/obesity/high-fructose corn syrup/processed food/nonprofit food industry nexus of issues, and the remarkable thing is that no one is scurrying about looking for cover. They’re either stonewalling (FRAC) or proudly acknowledging their fealty to the processed food industry. Reminds me a lot of big tobacco and all the nonprofits who feasted off its “philanthropic” largesse for decades.

  3. Kat says

    That is ridiculous! Soda is proven to lead to poor health, how will they pay future hospital bills if they’re on the assistance? Where I live, it’s easier to stay on assistance than get a job when you’ve popped out 5 kids and are lazy, so please believe their medical insurance is paid by yours truly, the tax payer. This is so stupid, and it’s not fair to the people who are supposed to be getting help to get on their feet, who probably seriously don’t even know how much all the soda is hurting them and their kids.

  4. Tricia says

    I have to admit that when I had cut soda out of my diet completely, even diet soda, I felt better and lost weight. I drank only water , juice and unsweetened teas. I unfortunately started drinking some soda again, but I do try to limit it. It has no place in anyone’s diet, and upon original invention, it was served at the “soda counter” in the pharmacy, and given as a medication.
    I do believe that SNAP has no place providing soda to it’s clients, but if you have ever been in line behind someone on food stamps, they eat better than my boyfriend and I do! More meat, seafood, and dairy than we can afford. I also think that if you are on assistance of any kind and get pregnant, you shouldn’t get any more money, food stamps or medicaid, simply because you came in for help with your situation at the time, now you are clearly in a different situation, get the guy who got you pregnant to help you now. Our society thinks of AFDC/SNAP/or what ever the name may be as a way of life and it needs to be a temporary solution. Our society has become a Chips, soda, fast food, ATM society. We need to work again.

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