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.This week, the New York Times and Marion Nestle both cover recent developments in the resulting controversy.
Here are several thoughts, addressed to health policy advocates such as the American Public Health Association, NYC officials, and others.
1. You never should have called the proposed policy a ban. Has there ever been a controversy over the "ban" on SNAP spending for hula-hoops and yo-yos? The "ban" on SNAP spending for gasoline? No, you could say SNAP has made a sensible bureaucratic division between eligible goods and ineligible goods. People can use cash for all the ineligible goods. The proposed policy would slightly narrow the class of foods and beverages eligible for taxpayer support through SNAP benefits.
2. You should have emphasized the pilot nature of the proposal, and the research questions that will be investigated. In the NYT article, the quote from Kelly Brownell at Yale gets this right. The pilot should ask two questions: (a) does the proposed policy improve food and beverage choices?, and (b) did the proposed policy annoy participants or make them less likely to participate? Some, but not all, SNAP participants will like the new policy. Remember, low-income parents struggle with their children over food choices in the grocery aisle just like middle-income parents do. The soda companies have no evidence that this proposal will cause any problems whatsoever for SNAP participants.
3. You should have negotiated with the anti-hunger community before taking this proposal public. The quote in the NYT article from the Food Research and Action Center is a bad sign. Some health advocates have already written off the anti-hunger community as hopeless on health and obesity issues, but this is a mistake in political strategy. Key leaders in anti-hunger policy advocacy and the charitable emergency food system watch public concern about health and nutrition very closely, and calibrate their own programs accordingly. Health advocates have leverage with the anti-hunger community, which cannot afford to be indifferent to health issues. I think a bargain should have been possible.