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.
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?