Monthly Archives: August 2011

NYC can’t prohibit soda purchases with food stamps

In his efforts to get a handle on the obesity epidemic plaguing the poor in New York City, Michael Bloomberg pushed for an “experimental” ban on purchasing soda with food stamps. Federal officials rejected (NYT: Federal Officials Reject City’s Plan to Ban Food Stamps for Soda“) that proposal on Friday.

Jessica Shahin, an associate administrator in the Agriculture Department, wrote that the waiver the city sought was denied because of the logistical difficulty of sorting out which beverages could or could not be purchased with food stamps and because it would be hard to gauge how effective the step was in reducing obesity. As an alternative, Ms. Shahin suggested the federal government could work with the city on other efforts to encourage consumers to make “healthy choices.”

Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, said in a statement that the department “has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions that are better-suited for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals” who rely on food stamps than restrictions are. “We are confident that we can solve the problem of obesity and promote good nutrition and health for all Americans and stand ready to work with New York City to achieve these goals.”

Unsurprisingly, soft drink industry lobbyists saw the decision as a victory. More surprisingly, Bloomberg’s proposal had poverty advocates up in arms too.

The disappointment … was matched by the thrill in the voice of Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who cheered the federal government for “deciding not to micromanage” the lives of poor people.

“The whole attempt was misguided and unworkable,” Mr. Berg said. “This proposal was based on the false assumption that poor people were somehow ignorant or culturally deficient.”

Similar rhetoric came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

The Agriculture Department questioned the merits of that plan, which focused on candy and soda, among other foods, and said it would “perpetuate the myth” that food stamp users made poor shopping decisions.

Critics commenting on The New York Times‘ CityRoom blog entry on the subject were often critical of the idea of a “nanny state” that prevented people from purchasing what they want.

Unfortunately, I see too many flaws in people’s reasoning, and USDA’s motivations seem plainly antithetical to the interests of New York and the poor. Tom Vilsack, it was frequently pointed out on the above-mentioned blog post, is a former governor of Iowa with ties to industrial food interests. Critics of the “nanny state” are forgetting that public money is already going to “nanny” people and, as a result of a complicated array of subsidies and industry conditions, the government is more or less paying people to make poor buying decisions.  The argument that New York’s waiver would be tough to administer seems to fall flat on its face; beer already is forbidden, and beer arguably is less unhealthy than soda.

On the other hand, I see Joel Berg and some other critics as well-meaning, but misguided. It may not be a popular thing to say, but I think it’s fair to say that poorer people are more likely to be uneducated on matters related to nutrition – which doesn’t make the poor stupid. Even when people are well-educated on food consumption, I think it’s safe to say that they often have other motivations, including financial ones. Non-nutritious food and beverages are low-hanging fruit that offer cheap calories. In economic terms, the “utility” of a high-calorie unhealthy meal exceeds the utility of a low-calorie, more expensive, yet healthier meal. Food stamp users must stretch tight food stamp budgets.

There are reasons to think Bloomberg’s proposal would not have worked. The biggest is, with soda banned, there would have been little to prevent people from switching to other high-calorie processed products, like bad fruit juices or foods high in sugar. Nonetheless, it deserves a try, and Federal obstruction is unfortunate.