National Consumers League

Advocates taking sides on food stamps for sugary beverages controversy


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By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director Should it be possible to use food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened beverages? This very issue is causing people and groups that are often allies to line up on opposing sides. In recent weeks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has asked the United States Department of Agriculture for permission to temporarily bar New York City’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients from buying sugary drinks with their benefits, commonly known as food stamps. The proposed two-year change to the program would allow researchers to study the potential impact of such a ban on public health. But a number of anti-hunger advocates – including Ellen Vollinger, the legal director of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), and Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger – are opposing the Mayor’s request. These individuals and organizations dedicated to fighting hunger in America, especially among children, think Bloomberg’s action would perpetuate the myth that people who need government assistance make bad choices at the supermarket. The food stamp program serves 41.8 million individuals, about half of them children. Though I strongly support the work of FRAC and other anti-hunger organizations – in fact, NCL directed funds to FRAC from a legal settlement we reached recently – and, of course, believe that we should be respectful of those who rely on food stamps to eat each month, I think I come down on the side of Mayor Bloomberg on this one. He’s not saying that people on food stamps can’t buy sugary drinks – they just can’t use these benefits meant as “supplemental nutrition assistance” dollars for products that have no nutritional value, and sugary drinks give new meaning to the term “no nutritional value.” Check the label sometime to try to find anything that is good for you and you’ll come up short. As the name implies, the food stamp program is intended to supplement the nutritional needs of struggling Americans. You can’t use them to buy alcohol or cigarettes; I would put sugary drinks in the same category. Another argument in the Mayor’s favor is the alarming number of Americans who are now considered overweight – 2/3 of all of us fall into that category. Sugary drinks contribute mightily to that problem, adding nutritionally bereft calories to the diets of far too many Americans, especially kids. The findings from numerous studies demonstrate a link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain, overweight, and obesity. Noting one of anti-hunger advocates’ central arguments against the proposal, Joel Berg stated, “It's sending the message to low-income people that they are uniquely the only people in America who don't know how to take care of their family.” I get that, but in this case, I think Mayor Bloomberg has the stronger argument. Caveat: we have active dissent from my position among our staff – and they make some compelling arguments. So, in this case I’m stating my opinion and not all of NCL’s. I’d welcome others’ thoughts and ideas.