Buying Soda With SNAP: To Ban or Not to Ban?

Big-city mayors and the American Medical Association want to limit purchases of sugary drinks with SNAP—but critics question this strategy.

SNAP soda
SNAP recipients spend more than $2 billion yearly on sugary drinks. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

On its face, it’s a concept that makes sense: Remove sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and sports drinks from the list of products that can be purchased with money from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Americans receiving the nutrition benefit spend close to $2 billion annually on sugary drinks, which account for 58 percent of beverages purchased by SNAP recipients. Considering soda consumption has been linked to obesity and an increased chance of developing diabetes, it’s understandable why the American Medical Association (AMA) and the mayors of 17 of the nation’s biggest cities want the federal government to drop sugar-sweetened beverages from the program.

“The AMA is working to improve the nation’s health care outcomes, particularly cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are often linked to obesity,” said AMA president Ardis D. Hoven, M.D. Last week the association committed to working on removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the SNAP program and encouraging state health agencies to include nutrition information in routine materials sent to SNAP recipients. According to Hoven, “Removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will help encourage healthier beverage choices.”

Similarly, 17 mayors co-signed a letter last week urging Congress to explore ways to improve Americans’ health by, in part, limiting the purchase of less nutritious products, including sugary drinks. In a letter addressed to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, mayors from metropolises such as New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco called on Congress to strengthen the nutrition assistance programs set forth in the Farm Bill while at the same time restricting what recipients can purchase with the benefit.

Sounds good, right?

Maybe not so much. As you might expect, the soda industry always squawks when the suggestion is made that fewer people should buy their products. But many anti-hunger groups also oppose such restrictions on nutrition programs. As Mark Dunlea, executive director of Hunger Action Network of New York State, tells TakePart, fixing America’s obesity problem must involve a deeper overhaul of our national food system, one that goes beyond simply placing restrictions on consumers.

“The problem is not the food choices made by SNAP participants, but rather the food choices offered to all Americans under the Farm Bill,” he says. “We need to invest in healthy food rather than the sugar (corn syrup) and fat (soy) that has long been promoted as part of the processed food diet under the Farm Bill. And we need more funding for nutrition education, starting in our schools, to assist all Americans in eating a healthy food diet.”

But while we’re working on the root causes of our national eating disorder, could removing soda from the list of products available under SNAP generate some short-term progress?

“No,” Dunlea says. “It would primarily stigmatize poor people.”

Opponents of SNAP restrictions say such policies imply that poor people eat less healthy than everyone else, which is not necessarily true. They add that SNAP is first and foremost a hunger program—not necessarily a nutrition program. Dunlea says that instead of banning soda purchases with SNAP, his organization, Hunger Action Network, prefers the implementation of a tax on sweetened beverages. This would raise the price of soda, he says, thus gradually moving people away from it. Revenues from the tax could be used to bolster nutrition programs and support farmers and nutrition education.

But such policies are unpopular among Americans, as evidenced by the inability of former New York Governor David Paterson to get a soda tax passed in the Empire State in 2010.

“Polls show that Americans oppose soda taxes when it is for general revenue but support them when targeted to nutrition and anti-hunger programs,” Dunlea says.

But Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, says raising taxes on unhealthy foods and drinks only hurts the non-wealthy. Berg, who also opposes restricting the use of SNAP for sugary drinks, maintains the root cause of diet-related illness among the poor is a lack of access to healthy, affordable food where they live.

“Government should help enable more farmers markets, produce stands, and full-service supermarkets to locate in low-income neighborhoods and ensure that they accept SNAP benefits,” Berg wrote in 2010. “Congress and the President should also increase the purchasing power of SNAP, thereby giving low-income people what we all want: the ability to make their own smart choices and to improve their own lives.”

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