Exploring Human Potential

Should Food Stamps Fund Poor Health? The Case Against Soda Driven Obesity.

Mike Magee

In New York City, the fourth largest city in the world, with 19.7 million people, 1.7 million or nearly 10% of its citizens use food stamps provided by the federal government and funded by public taxes. As part of the war on poverty, citizens have supported the program for a half a century. But the war on poverty is now colliding head on with the war on obesity. (1, 2)

Here’s how. The food stamp program is run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The rules say you can’t buy prepared food including deli sandwiches, beer, wine, alcohol or cigarettes with the coupons. But you can buy soda and other highly sugared beverages with no nutritional value with food stamps. (2, 3, 4)

This is problematic in a city where nearly 40% of all students from kindergarden to 8th grade are  overweight or obese; where 60% of the adults are obese, and where obesity related diseases cost the state 8 billion  a year. Studies show that if your child puts down just one sugary beverage a day, it increases the risk of obesity by 60% and can add an additional 15 pounds of weight in a single year. One 12 ounce can of soda has 150 calories and the equivalent of 10 packets of sugar. (2,4)

Back in 2004 Minnesota asked the USDA to ban the use of food stamps for purchases of junk food and sodas. The USDA questioned the merits of the request and worried about the politics that seemed to suggest that the poor, who largely are the recipients of this aid, can’t make good decisions when it comes to nutrition. (3) Well they haven’t. And neither have many of their rich counterparts.

But now Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York says enough is enough for tax support of a product that is “more sugar than substance”. His first try was to increase state taxes on the beverages. That was blocked on a state level. He has now directed his Health Commissioner Thomas Farley to seek federal permission to outlaw the purchase of sugared drinks under the food stamp program. (1, 2, 3, 4)

The new policy would not effect milk, milk substitutes, or fruit juices without added sugar. It would augment other moves in the city including expanding access to fresh produce in poorer areas, new nutrition requirements at schools and day care centers, and an ad campaign to adjust citizens behaviors. (3)

Predictably, opposition from the food and beverage industry will be stiff – and much of it non-transparent. And some citizens will cry foul, that their freedoms are being eroded, though many of the same will continue to cry “no more taxes” and protest that the federal government does not spend their hard earned tax money wisely.

The reality is, this is a no brainer. Rich and poor alike know that they need to make adjustments in their diets and food choices. Rich and poor alike know that what they eat affects their burden of disease, their sense of wellness and their childrens’ futures. (1, 5) We all could use a little push to help tip the scale toward health. Bloomberg has advocated taxing poor nutritional choices as a deterrant and now eliminating the federal subsidy of poor health through food stamps. In both cases, he’s absolutely right.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


1. Brownell KD and Frieden TR. Ounces of Prevention – The Public Policy Case For Taxes on Sugared Beverages. NEJM. April 30, 2009.

2. Farley T, Daines RF. No Food Stamps for Sodas. NYT. A39. October 7, 2010

3.Hartocollis A. Food Stamps as New Front in Soda Wars. NYT. A1. October 7, 2010.

4. Sataline S. Soda is New Assault Target. WSJ. October 7, 2010.

5. Logatto E. Soft drink tax could pare wastelines, cover health care

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