Why NYC's proposed soda ban is good for food stamp recipients

rows of soda in refrigerated section, proposed nyc soda ban for food stamp recipientsBanning soda for food stamp users is a good idea. And I write as someone who has not once, but twice, been on food stamps myself.

I write about food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), enough to know the usual rhetorical arguments used by the various concerned groups. Even when the debate enters an arena that seems extraordinarily sensible; as in last week's petition by New York City to bar SNAP recipients from purchasing soda with their federal benefits; still, the reasoning coalesces around two ideas.

George Hacker from the Center for Science in the Public Interest represents one side in the debate, telling the New York Times, " there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps."

The health commissioners of New York state and city represent the other side, writing in an Op-Ed, "They would still receive every penny of support they now get, meaning they would have as much, if not more, to spend on nutritious food. And they could still purchase soda if they choose -- just not with taxpayer dollars."

There are many others with skin in this debate, notably the USDA and the American Beverage Association -- the spokes-organization for the soda companies. In the past, the USDA has taken a stance that blurts its cozy relationship with the enormous infrastructure of junk food (just as a for-instance, the current head of the Corn Refiner's Association spent the past eight years at the USDA -- you can have bias without buy-off, as experts on ethics will point out). The refusal of Minnesota's request to ban candy and soft drinks is the best example, leading off the opinion with the assertion the ban would "stigmatize food stamp recipients" and cause "confusion and embarrassment" in the check-out line.

The American Beverage Association has its wide innocent eyes on, as usual, with statements like this: "This is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink, and will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it." What is unfair about not being able to afford soda, they don't go on to delineate.

Here's the thing, Americans: food stamps are already stigmatized, and when one enters a check stand line with a cart full of soda, candy and junk food, we're all embarrassed. Banning the purchase of foods that are not foods is hardly punishment, nor will it add anything to the stigma the USDA admits, itself, is a huge problem for food stamp recipients (and part of the reason why at least 30% more people than are receiving them are figured to be eligible in any given year).

I've been on food stamps, both as a kid when the stamps were pastel-colored currency from which you could get quarters and dimes as change, and as recently as a year ago, when my husband was unemployed and I was struggling to support our family of five on a just-starting-out freelance writer's income. Let me tell you: the stigma and embarrassment were writ large. I felt bad about buying organic peaches in season on the government's dime (they were $2.49 a pound!) let alone chips and soda.

The peaches were good for me, though, and have never been accused of contributing to diabetes or obesity, public health specters whose tab will be picked up by the government for most of those who qualify for food stamps (after all, we know they can't afford insurance). There is lots of skin in this game; and a lot of fat, too, and say what they will, no one has come up with a good defense for soda that includes either its nutritional value or the assertion that it is, indeed, even a food. If one is seeking to supplement a person in need of assistance with their nutrition, as the name of the program asserts, one will not do so by giving them money to buy something devoid of nutrition entirely.

If this is punishment, bring it on. We all could do with a little punishment. Our money -- whether it's represented by cash in our wallet or a swipe-card from the USDA -- will never do a thing good for us when it's used to buy soda. It will, instead, lead to more costs down the road, for the nutritious food we'll need to eventually eat in order to make it through the day; for the extra calories our bodies will tell us we need when sugar tricks them; and for the cost to treat our health problems leading from empty, damaging calories.

I think we all need to remember something our parents probably said to us: "I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you what I'll pay for." It's senseless to give the poor money to buy something that's only going to make life harder and more expensive. Banning soda from food stamp purchases should only be the first step.
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