Soda, obesity and your tax dollars at work

Should food stamps be used to purchase soda? Here’s what a U.S. Senator said when Congress debated that question:

I do not want to include Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola or any of that family. I like them myself, but I do not believe they should be permitted to be substitutes for milk. They are not valuable for the diet. They can be a waste of money especially for young people. Personally, I think it is a great mistake to include them…

I want to help the poor and hungry and not sacrifice them for Coca-Cola….These have no nutritional value—none at all… Actually, they are bad for kids, rather than good for them. I hesitate to use such language, but the only benefit I can see in the present language is that it will increase the sales of the Coca-Cola and other cola and soft drink companies.

Senator Douglas

That was Paul Douglas, a liberal Democrat from Illinois, speaking in 1964 — decades before Americans began to worry about an obesity epidemic. Of course, he lost the argument, and the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, has been used to buy sugary soft drinks (although not alcohol or tobacco or fast-food meals) ever since.

Douglas is quoted in a new report called Food Stamps: Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans? [PDF, download] The report, by Michele Simon, an author, lawyer and consultant whose website is Eat Drink Politics, come as debate is picking up the role of soda in the obesity crisis.

“The federal government should not be fueling America’s epidemic of diet-related chronic disease with taxpayer money,” Simon told Reuters last week.

Her report is timely because SNAP is the biggest title in the five-year $480-billion Farm Bill now on the Senate floor.  SNAP expenditures grew to $72 billion in 2011, up from $30 billion four years earlier.

It makes some silly points (yes, lots of SNAP money is being spent at Walmart, but so what?) and a couple of useful ones.

First, the government has so far refused to disclose how the SNAP money is being spent, although the data is electronic and should be available.

“SNAP’s tagline is ‘putting healthy food within reach.’ Without data on how much money is being spent on Coke versus orange juice, or Lucky Charms versus oatmeal, how will we ever evaluate the nutrition goals of the program?” Simon asked.

Second, some of the leading opponents of restricting how SNAP funds should be spent are anti-hunger advocacy organizations like the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America. Why? They may well have good reasons for their views but, as Simon points out, they benefit from donations from big food companies including Cargill and PepsiCo.

FRAC, for instance, recently had a gala dinner in DC and says on its website:

The General Mills Foundation served as Legacy Patron of the event, which received generous support from the American Beverage Association, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, Inc., Taste of the NFL, Abbott, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Mars Incorporated, Nestlé USA, Unilever United States, Inc., and many others.

The American Beverage Association, in particular, has been at the forefront of efforts to discourage soda consumption, including New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s recent proposal to ban large-size servings of sugared drinks in restaurants, delis, theaters and sports arenas. [See my recent blogpost, Are sugary sodas the new tobacco?]

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the obesity epidemic, especially after hearing New York’s health commissioner, Thomas Farley, talk about the human suffering of people with obesity in the city. The causes of obesity are complex–soda is just a part of the story–but the fact is that the costs of heath care in America are and always will be shared by all of us, under any system other than one leaving poor, sick people to die in the street. In that light, the government has not just the right to make decisions about what foods will be subsidized with taxpayer dollars, and which won’t, but the obligation. This won’t be easy–are candy, potato chips and ice cream next?–but it’s part of creating an environment that makes it easier for people to practice good health habits. This would include regular phys ed in schools, more walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, etc. It would also include more generous SNAP benefits, to enable participants in the program to afford healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables. Why not, for example, expand a great program that provides discounts for families that use SNAP benefits at Farmer’s Markets? [Seem my 2010 blogpost, Chef to the rich, advocate for the poor]

How much SNAP money is being spent on soda? Jonathan D. Shenkin, clinical assistant professor of the Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine, has estimated that it’s about $4 billion. Using limited data, Shenkin and Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest write:

SNAP participants appear to purchase at least 40 percent more carbonated soft drinks than other consumers do. At one major supermarket chain, SNAP participants bought 4.3 percent of carbonated soft drinks even though they only represented 1.8 percent of transactions. At another large chain, carbonated soft drinks accounted for 6.19 percent of the grocery bills of SNAP participants.

The more important point is that SNAP is intended to help low-income families buy the food they need. No one needs soda.

On its website, Food Research and Action Center argue that “trying to control SNAP participants’ use of tax dollars is a slippery slope,” that the government could then try to regulate food purchases by Social Security recipients or its own employees, that restrictions would “drag Congress, USDA and lobbyists into political, not scientific, “food fights” over lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods,” and that “purchasing restrictions likely would increase stigma and confusion at grocery check-out.”

[I emailed FRAC twice last week to ask about the financial support they get from the food and beverage industry, and whether that influences their policy position, but did not get my question answered. I’ll be happy to post a response if I get one.]

The National Confectioners Association, meantime, invokes religious holidays to argue that SNAP purchases should be unrestricted. According to Simon’s report, the talking points on the group’s website [which can now be seen only be members] said:

Limiting food choices in SNAP could deny children an occasional treat during the holidays such as Christmas, Halloween, Hannukah, Easter, etc.—and for birthday parties, shouldn’t parents be able to make the decision whether treats will be offered?

And shouldn’t mom or dad be able to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer on their birthday? Well, yes, but not paid for by a nutrition program.

Sen. Douglas was right about soda: “These have no nutritional value. None at all.”

Battle lines are being drawn, with public-health advocates on one side, and the soda, candy, sugar and corn industries–and they groups they fund–on the other.

Which side are you on?


  1. PBC says

    Bloomberg’s decision is just terrible for many reasons. I think the main reason for obesity has to do with people living emotionally defeated and using food as a comfort food. These people need to get off food stamps, out of bad areas that perpetuate defeatism, and back in the game. Alcoholics have a million excuses. What’s going to be the excuse next week for obesity? The size of the bakery section? Thanks for the Scott Jurek book recommendation. I loved it.

  2. Ed Reid says

    Even if we knew what foods were purchased with SNAP cards, we would not necessarily know much about the purchase decisions of SNAP card recipients, since SNAP cards are also sold for cash by SNAP card recipients to non-eligible persons; and, the cash is then used to purchase goods (legal and illegal) which cannot be purchased with SNAP cards.

    I understand the freedom and privacy concerns, but I have little sympathy for the privacy of those who live on other people’s money. I am also a big fan of drug testing for welfare recipients. If those earning the funds which are taxed away to pay for SNAP can be subject to drug testing, so can those who are taking advantage of the freebies.

    • Warren Goldstein says

      There is a very disappointing thread here, which resurrects the hundred-year old notion of distinguishing the “undeserving poor” (those who take “our” money) and the “deserving poor”–presumably those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

      Would you make the same argument about social security recipients, living on “other people’s money,” since what they put into the system is less than what they required from it? Since the poor pay FICA on any job they have ever had, pay sales tax on everything they buy, pay gasoline tax whenever they put gas in the tank, why is it “other people’s money?”

      If we drug test TANF participants, then we’d better test Medicare and Social Security recipients, and all those who are recipients of public largesse, such as retired cops, and those taking deductions on their income taxes for mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and IRA contributions.

      • Ed Reid says

        Nice try!

        Social Security recipients (DISCLOSURE: I am one.) paid into the SS system what they were required to pay into the system. They now receive the earned benefits defined by the system’s administrators. Their SS earned benefit is not as large as their monthly income would have been had the same funds been invested in the market over the same period.

        The poor’s FICA taxes supposedly go into a (dis)trust fund “lockbox” to fund their earned benefits when they retire. Sales taxes are exclusively state and local taxes. Gasoline taxes, both state and federal, are supposedly deposited into (dis)trust funds for use in building and maintaining roads and bridges. If they pay the taxes, they are using the roads and bridges.

        However, the poor do not pay income taxes, which are the general fund federal taxes which are used to fund their welfare benefits and earned income tax credits. Therefore, they are living on OPM. It is disingenuous to point to trust funds when it is convenient and ignore them when it is not.

        You appear to believe there are no real differences between those who are poor because of illness or injury or temporary unemployment and those who are poor because of poor life choices or simple laziness. Some of us (perhaps the older among us) still believe in that “old notion”.

  3. says

    This article is a SLAMDUNK. Thank you Marc Gunther, Michele Simon, & Senator Douglas. I look forward to FRAC’s response, please send it to us @DunkTheJunkFood We are a street style food revolution teaching urban youth the dangers of excessive junk food consumption using HipHop, graffiti, & acrobatic slam-dunks at Check out our BLOG post on at We think you will love it. Keep up your great work. We will be FB sharing and tweeting your efforts. Thank you. Sincerely, Kevin Strong, MD and Founder of Dunk the Junk.

  4. Ben Cloud says

    The solution is the negative income tax suggested by Milton Friedman. People who fall below the poverty threshold recieve a check with no conditions and freedom to choose their own best interest. We have developed a society of winners and losers. The winners should not have the ability to feast on the losers with unrealistic control over individual decisions.

    • Marc Gunther says

      Ben, I think you’re right. I didn’t want to get into general economic/tax policy in this post but the heart of the problem may be the way we parse out benefits to the poor (food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies) with strings attached rather than a negative income tax and as you, write, pun presumably intended, the freedom to choose.

    • Ed Reid says

      The losers should not have the ability to feast on the “winners” either.

      The construct of “winners” and “losers” is very reminiscent of John Edwards, who is definitely a loser, if not a criminal. However, relatively few of those he referred to as the “winners of life’s lottery” were actually winners, but rather just people who worked hard, saved some of their earnings and
      did the right things”. He attempted to create the impression that the “winners” were just “lucky” and that others were simply “unlucky”. He rather glossed over the fact that many of the losers had failed to study in school or graduate, had poor work habits, made no effort to save a portion of what they earned, used drugs, etc. Fortunately, he had only limited success in making those who worked hard feel guilty about the fate of those who hadn’t.

  5. Marc Gunther says

    I neglected to reach out to Feeding America, an anti-hunger group, before writing this post, but I contacted them today, and they responded promptly with this statement:

    “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.”

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