Thursday, October 07, 2010

New York City seeks a waiver to restrict food stamp (SNAP) benefits

New York City this week petitioned USDA for permission to disallow soda purchases with food stamp (SNAP) benefits.  USDA may well disapprove the proposal, having in previous years turned down requests from other states for similar waivers from federal rules.

Such proposals have greatest promise when they can answer "yes" to some simple questions.  Have the policy's sponsors won over any substantial fraction of the supposed beneficiaries?  Does the policy treat people from different income backgrounds fairly and equally?  Do the sponsors articulate the limits to the policy, so that the public is reassured the policy will not overreach?

Dan Sumner is an agricultural economist who participated in some recent work about food stamps with colleagues at the University of California Davis, where I am visiting.  By email this morning, he explained his misgivings about the new proposal:
This policy proposal raises two questions in my mind. (1) Are we ready as a matter of policy to declare some legal foods are just BAD no matter what else one consumes and no matter the context? (2) Would such a ban have an effect on behavior of anyone, except those proposing the ban, who would presumably enjoy thinking that their taxes were not used to buy "bad" food and may then celebrate with a glass of red wine (which is already a banned food for food stamps)?
In an op-ed today in the NYT, New York health officials favoring the proposal did describe its context in the midst of other efforts to promote good health.  However, most of those examples were also about nutrition improvements for poor people.

It must be disappointing for policy sponsors when neither Marion Nestle nor the Center for Science in the Public Interest (see third paragraph in this link) approve of a proposal to improve the nutrition environment.

[Update Oct 11: CSPI writes by email to point out that executive director Michael Jacobson's statement on this policy, dated Oct 7, endorses the NYC proposal:
The USDA should approve New York City’s sensible request to test excluding soda and other sugary beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The empty calories in soft drinks pose a major public health problem by promoting tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. It’s also the case that those diseases have a disproportionate impact on low-income Americans. However, the extent to which SNAP recipients’ purchases of soft drinks is contributing to poor diets and obesity is unclear and controversial. I applaud New York City for seeking to get some real data to inform the debate. As it is, industry is enjoying about a $4-billion-a-year subsidy thanks to people spending SNAP benefits on soft drinks.]
You can imagine the voluminous comment page for the NYT coverage has much bluster on every side.  One more subtle comment was an anecdote from Burt in Oregon:
A woman once brought her boy to Mahatma Gandhi to have him tell her boy to stop eating sugar. He told them to return in two weeks. When they returned, he told the boy to stop eating sugar. When asked why he didn't tell the boy the first time to stop eating sugar, Gandhi replied, "Two weeks ago I was still eating sugar."
[Update 10/14/2010: Tom Ashbrook's On Point debates this issue.]


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Jeff said...


I enjoyed reading this entry specifically because I have been reading Joel Berg's "All You Can Eat / How Hungry is America." In it, as I'm sure you're aware, he discusses the food stamp (SNAP) program, it's formation, the historical politics behind it and the current issues (as of 2008) it faces as well as the benefits it has had on eliminating severe starvation (but not hunger entirely). I have enjoyed reading your blog since I have found, in many cases, you like to bring in both sides of the issue in terms of who you cite. Clearly, both sides have compelling opinions. On the one end, Sumner argues against policy makers defining what foods are good or bad. On the other, actors such as CSPI understand that soft drinks, no matter how you look at it, simply aren't good for you and should be taken out of a balanced diet.

I was curious how you would then respond to an argument Joel Berg makes numerous times in his book that people on food stamps have so little choice in what they can eat through both the restrictions on the program and the lack of excess money to make these independent decisions (i.e. a farmer’s market is too expensive for many). Furthermore, in the chapter where he tries the food stamp program, he actually complains that, in not purchasing drinks, he wasn’t able to ever clean his palette. Lastly, he mentions how milk may cost over three times as much as soft drinks; for some potentially a prohibitively high price to pay given their food stamp allotment. For all these reasons, in addition to Sumner’s, I tend to believe that this policy should not pass as it further restricts what the poor can and cannot do (exactly what Berg opposes). Conversely, I think the program should increase the extent to which it educates participants and perhaps creates a separate subsidy for healthier drinks, like milk, to incentivize those purchases as opposed to prohibit the types of drinks that many of us opt to drink on a daily basis. I was hoping you could offer your opinion on this?


SarahB said...

I'm a Friedman graduate, I rarely drink soda myself, and I'm certainly a fan of banning sodas in schools.


All I can think about is some poor single mother who wants to get 7-Up for her kid at home with the stomach flu. Or the same mother who wants to get her kids a treat to celebrate their birthday or some achievement.

The poor already lack access to so many things, large and small, that I hesitate to use food stamps as a tool to remove one more choice from their lives.

Anonymous said...

raised on ny foodstamps, also received foodstamps elsewhere where there were no restrictions as to what the person buys at all! Both were good. In NY as a child we only bought nutritious food anyway, never soda. Elsewhere without restrictions that came in very handy for basics too. Maybe ask the people who are actually involved whether they want restrictions or not, like ask the children if they are feeling well and getting enough food.