Bloomberg is getting some approval for his desire to prevent people on food stamps from buying soft drinks:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sought federal permission on Wednesday to bar New York City’s 1.7 million recipients of food stamps from using them to buy soda or other sugared drinks.

The request, made to the United States Department of Agriculture, which finances and sets the rules for the food-stamp program, is part of an aggressive anti-obesity push by the mayor that has also included advertisements, stricter rules on food sold in schools and an unsuccessful attempt to have the state impose a tax on the sugared drinks.

Public health experts greeted Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal cautiously. George Hacker, senior policy adviser for the health promotion project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said a more equitable approach might be to use educational campaigns to dissuade food-stamp users from buying sugared drinks.

“The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages,” Mr. Hacker said. “However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps.”

The mayor requested a ban for two years to study whether it would have a positive impact on health and whether a permanent ban would be merited.

I cannot say that I share Mr. Hacker’s concern about stigmatizing food stamp beneficiaries on two fronts. First of all, I don’t see how preventing them from getting any particular type of product “stigmatizes” them, unless “stigmatize” should be redefined to “not get whatever they want.” Second, if it does stigmatize people on food stamps, I really don’t care. If they need it, they won’t care. If they care, they probably don’t need it. Of all of the things I am worried about, someone feeling put upon because they can’t use somebody else’s money to buy a product they want but do not need is not something that really concerns me.

That being said… seriously? I have no philosophical objection to this idea, but do you really expect it to do much of anything? Either they want coke specifically or they want something sweet. If they want coke, they’ll buy it with whatever money they have. The thing about coke is that it is cheap. If they want sweet, they can get something else sweet and will be consuming the sugar through other means and they’ll still probably be doing it on the taxpayer’s dime. And how do you define soft drinks, anyway? Ban coke, okay, but what about Sunkist? Sunny Delight? Cranberry juice? Do you base it on sugar grams per mililiter? Carbonation? What? And if you’re penalizing soft drinks for being too sugary, what about candy?

Which I guess means in a way that I agree with Hacker. Except that I think that the only thing this law actually accomplishes is to register your disgust with poor people drinking bad things on your dime. It’s one of those things that allows us to feel superior to those poor dopes. A way of saying “Take that!”

So, in short, I can’t say that I object, but it strikes me mostly as muscle-flexing and ineffectual finger-wagging.


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15 Responses to Food Stamps & Soft Drinks

  1. logtar says:

    Ever heard of MtDew Mouth?

  2. rob says:

    I think the regulation is pretty reasonable. Society does food stamps to ensure that people don’t go hungry or end up malnourished. Soda is not really food, and certainly no one needs it to get reasonable amounts of macro and micro nutrients. There are people, though it’s hard to beleive, who don’t realize that lots of soda is not good. Maybe if people can’t buy soda with food stamps, they’ll realize it isn’t actually food.

    I’m appalled that soda companies haven’t lobbied against it. They must have higher margin products to market instead.

  3. David Alexander says:

    I’m appalled that soda companies haven’t lobbied against it.

    Given that Coca-Cola owns Minute Maid and Pepisco owns Tropicana, I suspect they’re not missing much. While 2 litres of soda can sell for 99 cents on sale, but 2 litres juice (roughly 64 float ounces) is $1.75 or so. Depending on how the profit margins work, there may actually be an increase in marginal profits.

  4. trumwill says:

    Soda is not really food, and certainly no one needs it to get reasonable amounts of macro and micro nutrients.

    That was Sigma’s reading of the situation, suggesting that you limit them to Soylent Green. When I first heard about it, I was thinking of Discworldian Dwarf Bread. More realistically, you could get rid of food stamps and instead offer free nutraloaf (used to feed prisoners in some circumstances) to anyone that wants it. You wouldn’t even need to means-test it. If they could afford real food, they’ll get off the nutraloaf immediately.

    There are people, though it’s hard to beleive, who don’t realize that lots of soda is not good.

    I used to believe this is true, but I am increasingly having my doubts.

  5. trumwill says:

    Logtar, Mountain Dew Mouth is simply tooth decay caused by too much sugar. I’m not sure how much it matters whether you’re drinking Mountain Dew or cranberry juice.

    David, good point. I suspect that the margins on orange juice and whatnot are better and the major orange juice makers are owned by the soda companies.

  6. Nanani says:

    If you let the government provide for your food, you are getting food with strings attached. So if the strings cut you off from soda, too bad.

    What other restrictions do food stamps have, though? It would be ridiculous to ban soda on the one hand and allow unlimited cotton candy on the other (to pick a random non-food edible thing).

  7. David Alexander says:

    David, good point. I suspect that the margins on orange juice and whatnot are better and the major orange juice makers are owned by the soda companies.

    The orange juice makers also produce a line of fruit punches as well. The pricing that I noted above was for punches made by Tropicana and Minute Maid, as orange juice isn’t really a good proxy for an alternative beverage outside of breakfast for most people. FWIW, Pepsico also produces Sunny Delight and Dole juices while Coke produces Hi-C and Capri Sun.

  8. trumwill says:

    If you let the government provide for your food, you are getting food with strings attached. So if the strings cut you off from soda, too bad.

    I agree, which is why I have no philosophical objection.

    What other restrictions do food stamps have, though? It would be ridiculous to ban soda on the one hand and allow unlimited cotton candy on the other (to pick a random non-food edible thing).

    No restrictions on edible things, so far as I am aware. That’s one of the things that makes me kind of roll my eyes at this. Do we really want to go down this path? I mean, is it worth our energy to start determining what is and is not okay? This strikes me as particularly susceptible to aggressive lobbying efforts. The last time we did that, corn and grains and other carbs ended up at the widest part of the food pyramid. And if we’re not going to do that (and I don’t think we will – I don’t think I’m the only one that would question the efficacy), are we doing anything more than just registering our disapproval for a single product? Seems that way to me.

  9. trumwill says:

    David, I think orange juice is actually a pretty good proxy because it’s the thing that we would never ban. The response to Sunny D could be that we just ban that, too. Maybe cranberry juice, too. But the line, wherever it’s drawn, probably won’t include orange juice. Unless we’re going to nutraloaf or veggie soup and water and (skim!) milk.

  10. Mike Hunt says:

    And if you’re penalizing soft drinks for being too sugary, what about candy?

    Many people think that candy should not be bought with food stamps.

    No restrictions on edible things, so far as I am aware.

    Generally speaking, you can’t buy alcohol, pet food, or prepared items. One item you can’t buy but I think you should is vitamins.

    I generally mirror your thoughts on this topic. Strictly speaking, ALL beverages should be banned on food stamps, since one can drink water. If one were to draw a line, it would probably be on sugar-added drinks. Soda, no; fruit juice yes. Politicians are grandstanding, since it is an easy way to score points, since everyone hates poor people. But, just because someone is grandstanding doesn’t mean that someone is incorrect.

  11. trumwill says:

    Ahh, hadn’t thought of alcohol. That doesn’t surprise me. How are prepared items defined?

    Candy is another thing that’s a bit difficult to nail down. What about granola bars? Energy bars? And they put HFCS (or sugar) in a lot of things, so I’m not sure that could be used as a barometer for food as it might be able to be for drinks.

  12. Mike Hunt says:

    How are prepared items defined?

    They are designed to be eaten in the store, or hot take-out.

    And they put HFCS (or sugar) in a lot of things, so I’m not sure that could be used as a barometer for food as it might be able to be for drinks.

    One could argue that anything with HCFS or sugar added should be ineligible for food stamps. After all, you are eating on the public dole; sugary treats are for those who can earn a living*.

    *Tongue somewhat in cheek.

  13. trumwill says:

    One could argue that anything with HCFS or sugar added should be ineligible for food stamps.

    Do you realize that you’ve just banned the purchase of high-fiber wheat bread?

  14. Mike Hunt says:

    Do you realize that you’ve just banned the purchase of high-fiber wheat bread?

    1) I didn’t do anything. I simply stated the argument.

    2) Meh. If someone on the dole can’t buy high-fiber wheat bread, I’ll live. As Richard Lewis once wrote, and as Al Bundy once said to Bud: Dip Dip Dip, Mum Mum Mum, Get a Job.

  15. trumwill says:

    Bean dip also has sugar (I’m kidding, I get the reference).

    Anyhow, I chose the high-fiber wheat bread in part because it’s an ostensibly healthy option. Most common bread is also going to have sugar (or HFCS) added to it. The cereal that has been pivotal in my weight-loss has sugar added to it.

    I suppose it is possible that if you cut food stampers off from this that some of these foods may eliminate the sugar. Not sold.

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