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.

Andrew Burton/Reuters/File
Soft-drink cup sizes are displayed at a news conference at City Hall in New York, May 31, 2012. On March 11, a judge invalidated New York City's plan to ban large sugary drinks from eateries. Op-ed contributor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach writes of proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps: 'There are better policy ideas out there that are more likely to the improve diets of food stamp recipients.'

Monday's court ruling blocking Mayor Bloomberg’s 'soda ban' restored New Yorkers’ freedom to supersize their sugary drinks. The judge reasoned that the rule limiting the size of sugary drinks to be sold at NYC eateries was arbitrary and capricious because it applied to some but not all food establishments, it excludes other beverages with higher concentrations of sweeteners, and because the loopholes in the rule – such as no limits on refills – “serve to gut the purpose of the rule.”

Various proposals to limit soda consumption have been popular among the public health community. Advocates ranging from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman are calling for a ban on the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages with food stamps. Media outlets recently reported health officials in South Carolina are considering requesting permission to implement such a ban. A similar proposal in New York City was recently rejected.

The same types of flaws that caused the New York judge to overrule the soda size-limits are inherent in these proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps. Not only will this policy likely not change what food-stamp recipients drink, but it may also harm the overall food-stamp program.

The food stamp program – officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – is a cornerstone of America’s safety net, providing food assistance to just more than 1 in every 7 Americans.

Monthly SNAP benefits are distributed via electronic benefit transfer cards that function like debit cards, which can be used at most grocery stores and many other outlets such as convenience stores and farmers markets. Since its inception in the 1960s, the program's recipients have been able to use their benefits to purchase almost any foods at the grocery store, except for alcohol, vitamins, and hot foods intended for immediate consumption like rotisserie chickens.

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.

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.

Many local areas and even a few states give bonus dollars for benefits used at farmers markets, allowing recipients to stretch their food budget farther when they buy fresh produce. The Department of Agriculture has been running a demonstration program – the Healthy Incentives Pilot – in Massachusetts that gives SNAP recipients a 30-cent rebate for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables. Policies like these make it easier to choose healthy foods.

The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Examination of the Adequacy of Food Resources and SNAP Allotments (of which I was a member) recently released an expert panel report. The report highlighted a range of wonkish but important policy changes to the SNAP benefit formula that would strengthen the program by increasing the payoffs to work, recalibrating how benefits vary across different family sizes, and so on. Policy changes along these lines will strengthen the purchasing power of SNAP benefits, which is more likely to improve dietary choices of recipients than the proposed restrictions on sugary drinks are.

I do not mean to understate the importance of fighting the obesity epidemic that is hitting Americans of all income-levels. Public-health advocates are right to call attention to our excessive consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages as one cause.

But in order to make progress against this public-health crisis, we need constructive policy solutions aimed more broadly, not initiatives that single out and stigmatize recipients of public assistance. Vending-machine restrictions, labeling calories on the front of packages, and, dare I say, even Mayor Bloomberg’s much-maligned limit on the size of soda containers in New York City – if it should be upheld on appeal and amended to address its loopholes – are all steps that might make progress in this area.

Without question, the advocates for a policy to ban the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits have the best of intentions. But policymakers need to be careful not to let their zeal for combating obesity push them into hastily adopting policies that at best are unlikely to help fight obesity, and, at worst, can do substantial damage to the safety net.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She studies the impacts of public policies on children.

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