Oh, SNAP: Another victory for lobbyists and maybe obesity

Oh, SNAP: Another victory for lobbyists and maybe obesity

New York City was hoping to try something new this year: banning food stamps being allowed to buy soda. But the feds have turned them down. The U.S. Department of Agriculture decreed this week that the pilot program is "too large and complex" to even try.

Two camps are claiming victory. The first group is some poverty advocates, who claimed the program would stigmatize food stamp users and embarrass them at the checkout counter.

"The whole attempt was misguided and unworkable,” Joel Berg, director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, told The New York Times. “This proposal was based on the false assumption that poor people were somehow ignorant or culturally deficient."

The ban would spread the stereotype that food stamp users use their government benefits to buy junk food, advocates said.

The weird thing is, that stereotype is true. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health said that food stamp users consume less produce and healthy foods and buy 40 percent more sugar-sweetened beverages than any other group of consumers.

While some people may assume this is because the poor are "ignorant or culturally deficient," as Berg related, buying unhealthy foods might be a symptom of something else: money management. Junk food is cheap food and a much more inexpensive way to get your daily calories. They might be empty calories, but when you're trying to feed a family on $277 a month--the average household benefits for a SNAP user--you have to be creative.

A 2009 study showed that food stamp use is linked to weight gain. "People's BMI increased faster when they were on food stamps than when they were not and increased more the longer they were in the program," according to the Ohio State Research news. Even then the study was claiming food stamps could be a part of America's obesity program. That was back when one in 11 Americans used them. Today, that number is one in seven.

The agriculture department's ruling on the food stamp soda ban is mainly a victory for lobbyists. Since New York City proposed the program, groups like the American Beverage Association have spent millions lobbying Washington to kill it.

"Once you start going into grocery carts, deciding what people can or cannot buy, where do you stop?” asked Kevin Keane, senior vice president of the American Beverage Association.

Sort of an odd statement, considering food stamps already have a list of things you can't buy with them: beer, wine, liquor tobacco, pet foods, soap, toilet paper, household supplies, vitamins, medicine, food to be eaten in the store, hot food.

The Food Marketing Institute also lobbied against the soda ban. On its lobbying reports, it listed the activity as "preservation of food choice."

Just how much did they spend on lobbying efforts? The American Beverage Association spent $22 million in 2010 lobbying federal officials and another $200 million lobbying New York state officials.  Looking over quarterly reports from major food and beverage groups, I found that almost $1.5 million was spent just this year, according to records from the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives.  Take a look at the breakdown:

That's quite a lot of cash. But then again, city officials estimate that between $75 million to $135 million in food stamp benefits are spent every year in New York on soda. And considering their win, perhaps it was a good investment.

Photo credit: Alexander Kaiser

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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