Should You Be Able to Buy Soda With Food Stamps?

A bipartisan commission to end hunger in the U.S. doesn't think so.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jan 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If the big soda companies had any hope that 2016 would see a bit of an ebb in the anti-soda trend, those hopes were pretty much dashed three days into the New Year. On Monday, the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger released its report on how to eliminate hunger in the United States, and there amid the 20 recommendations that all nine members of the commission could agree on—those appointed by Republican leaders in Congress as well as Democrats—was a bombshell for the industry: Kick soda off the list of items that can be purchased with food stamps.

Using the acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps, the commission wrote, “SNAP benefits should help families meet their nutritional needs, not contribute to negative health outcomes through poor nutrition choices.” For the commission members, five of them Republican and four Democrat, that means no longer allowing SNAP recipients to buy soda and other such sugar-sweetened beverages with their benefits.

It would seem about time. Scientific evidence linking soda consumption to a variety of serious and potentially fatal health effects, from heart disease and obesity to diabetes, has been mounting for years. Public health experts have decried soda as the single biggest source of empty calories in the American diet, and for all their marketing hype and aggressive lobbying against things like soda taxes, soda makers haven’t even bothered to argue that their liquid candy is remotely good for you.

Instead, they have generally resorted to cynical invocations of liberty and personal freedom, here given a particularly stomach-turning bent as they cast themselves as defenders of the poor. “People using SNAP benefits make the same food-buying decisions as we all do; they don’t need government telling them which aisles they are allowed to go down and how best to serve their families,” the industry’s main lobbying group, the American Beverage Association, said in a statement to Politico. “Allowing government to designate foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would create a food code more complicated and arbitrary than the tax code,” the ABA added. “That would put us on a slippery slope of government intrusion into many decisions that have always been left to the individual to decide.”

Of course, that’s all ridiculous. No one is proposing putting any aisle of the supermarket off-limits to any segment of the population. All Americans, regardless of income or whether they receive food stamps, would still be able to buy soda—they just wouldn’t be able to use their SNAP benefits to do it. With public health care costs associated with diseases linked to higher soda consumption totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars or more, it would seem we, as taxpayers, would have a right to demand an end to what is in effect a huge public subsidy for the soda industry—an industry whose products, not to belabor the point, provide little to nothing in real nutritional value, less even than most any other junk food.

But beyond the loss of an egregious level of taxpayer support, the soda industry is perhaps even more fearful of what it is no doubt starting to see as the writing on the wall. To lump soda in with other items prohibited for purchase with SNAP benefits, such as cigarettes and alcohol, would seem yet another step on the path of pushing soda out of the realm of wholesome, all-American drink in the public mind and further into the category of unhealthy vice.