They are not really stamps and in fact, are not even paper any more, but food stamps, or technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is part of the daily routine of over 40 million Americans. One in eight Americans, and one in four children, survive on the benefit plan, which pays on average $133 a month. Critics claim the program forces people to stay on welfare or remain tied to low-wage jobs, while SNAP is often subjected to fraud and abuse; proponents cite SNAPs role as a critical safety net, particularly for folks who spend a huge proportion of their income on rent—and many of these families have children, who have no control over their families’ economic plight.
How and what can be purchased under the SNAP program has always been controversial. Few restrictions exist: SNAP recipients cannot buy alcohol, tobacco, pet food, household supplies, vitamins, and hot food—but any other food products are fair game. Yes, you could purchase filet mignon, veggie burgers, organic rabbit, and Red Vines. But if New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way, sugary drinks like soda will be on the no-no list for the 1.7 million New Yorkers who qualify for SNAP benefits.
Depending on one’s perspective, New York has either been a beacon or laughingstock when it comes to the push for healthier food. The city banned trans fats, flirted with a sodium reduction campaign, launched an aggressive anti-obesity initiative, and set stricter guidelines on what kinds of foods could be sold in schools. Now Mayor Bloomberg wants a waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP program, to gauge whether a temporary two-year ban on soda pop would do the city some good. Bloomberg has pushed for a tax on sugary foods in the past, only be rebuffed by the state’s legislature.
Is this smart policy, an over-caffeinated nanny state, raised public health awareness, or added humiliation heaped on SNAP beneficiaries, many of whom do work but rely on this program to get by? Does government have the prerogative to tell or suggest to anyone, whether in the top tax bracket or those struggling financially, what they can and cannot eat or drink? And while soda clearly offers no nutritional value, why stop with fizzy drinks? Milk products and milk substitutes would not be subjected to the proposed ban, and neither would juice. The reality is that while it tastes good, there is no nutritional reason to drink juice; and in fact, some “100% pure” juices contain more sugar than the equivalent amount of soda. And sure, chocolate milk has calcium and vitamin D, but is a sugar and calorie bomb (which is why the real or soy version are so good). Could it be that some interest groups have a little too much pull at city hall, the state legislature, or even Congress?
Consumption of soda has long been on the rise; likewise, so has obesity and diabetes. An imposed ban on a group of people that nixes the use of their state-funded benefits for the purchase of certain food products opens an ethical can. Why can’t the USDA study what is actually purchased with SNAP dollars? Privacy is an issue, but now that these transactions are completed electronically, it would be interesting to run a study and see what is purchased in aggregate—if a disproportionate amount of our tax dollars is spent on chips and soda, and therefore, increased medical costs hit everyone’s pocketbooks, perhaps society should revisit this issue. But if one in eight Americans are SNAP recipients, chances are everyone of us knows someone who relies on this program. Perhaps more can be done to educate SNAP recipients on how they could best maximize those benefits and stay healthy. Bloomberg’s idea comes from good intentions, but unfortunately, it comes across as picking on a group that already is frustrated and disillusioned with their economic situation.