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Opinion

Proposals to ban purchase of sugary drink with food stamps won't work

The same flaws that caused a New York judge to overturn Mayor Bloomberg's ban on big sugary drinks are inherent in proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps. Such bans are unlikely to help fight obesity and can do substantial damage to the safety net.

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Public-health advocates rightly point out that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of excess calories in the average American diet, and they provide no nutritional benefit. Assuredly, low-income and higher-income Americans alike would be better off if they substituted water for some of their daily soda consumption.

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But the policy recommendation to disallow the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP benefits exaggerates the potential impacts on obesity such a ban would have. This is because the rationale for the ban is based on a false understanding of how SNAP benefits work.

By design, almost all SNAP recipients with children use the benefits in addition to some of their own cash income to purchase groceries. Indeed, that’s why the program is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; it is intended to work to extend a family’s food purchasing power, not to cover 100 percent of food purchases. 

According to the best available data on spending patterns in the United States, the Consumer Expenditure Survey, a family on food stamps usually receives an average of $225 per month in benefits (currently increased to $280 because of temporary stimulus funding) but spends a total of $350 on food and drinks, making up the difference with $125 in cash. About $13 total is spent on sugar-sweetened beverages eligible for purchase with SNAP, or the dollar equivalent of about two cases of Coca-Cola.

What will happen to this family if they cannot use SNAP benefits to purchase soda and sweetened beverages? Probably nothing. They can continue to purchase the same $13 worth of Coke or Dr Pepper, but just have to make certain to pay for them out of their own cash instead of their benefits.

In addition to likely failing to curb the purchase of sugary drinks, this policy proposal may also harm the SNAP program. Additional restrictions on eligible foods will increase the administrative costs of the program, which is probably not a good idea in the current budgetary environment. They will also increase the stigma faced by recipients when they use the benefits.

There are better policy ideas out there that are more likely to improve the diets of food stamp recipients. For example, over the past decade, fresh fruits and vegetables have become relatively more expensive compared to foods that are considered less healthy. Policies can be designed to make these foods more affordable and provide incentives for low-income families to purchase them.

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