Using food stamps to buy sodas, teas, sports drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages would not be allowed in New York City under a new government effort to battle obesity.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson announced Thursday that they are seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the nation's food stamp program, to add sugary drinks to the list of prohibited goods for city residents receiving assistance.
If approved, it would be the first time an item would be banned from the federal program based solely on nutritional value.
Spending government money on "foods of little or no nutritional value not only contradicts the intent of the program, it also effectively subsidizes a serious public health epidemic," New York officials wrote in their proposal.
The idea has been suggested before, including in 2008 in Maine, where it drew criticism from advocates for the poor who argued it unfairly singled out low-income people and risked scaring off potential needy recipients.
In 2004, the USDA rejected Minnesota's plan to ban junk food, including soda and candy, from food stamp purchases, saying it would violate the Food Stamp Act's definition of what is food and could create "confusion and embarrassment" at the register.
New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said he believes New York's request has a better chance of being approved than the "skimpy" 2004 Minnesota program because it focuses only on beverages.
He said it also has the advantage of being a temporary program with an evaluation plan to study its effectiveness.
USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee said Thursday the agency received the proposal and will consider it.
The food stamp system, launched in the 1960s, serves some 40 million Americans per month and does not currently restrict any food item based on nutrition.
Recipients can essentially buy any food for the household, although there are some limits on hot or prepared foods. Food stamps also cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes or items such as pet food, vitamins or household goods.
The ban would apply to any beverage that contains more than 10 calories per 8 ounces, except for milk products, milk substitutes like soy milk and rice milk, and fruit juices without added sugar.
A 20-ounce sugar-sweetened drink can contain the equivalent of as many as 16 packets of sugar.
Some New Yorkers who receive the assistance said officials had good intentions but felt the proposal went too far.
"If people want to buy that stuff, they should be able to. If it's not an illegal product, they should be able to buy what they want to buy."
The program would be temporary, so officials could study its effects over two years. It would apply only to food stamp recipients in New York City — 1.7 million of the city's more than 8 million residents — and would not affect the amount of assistance they receive.
"Sugar-sweetened drinks are not worth the cost to our health, and government shouldn't be promoting or subsidizing them," said Bloomberg, who also has outlawed trans-fats in restaurant food and has forced chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.
In fiscal year 2009, New Yorkers received $2.7 billion in food stamp benefits and spent $75 million to $135 million of that on sugary drinks, the city said.
Officials said stores that participate in the food stamp program would be responsible for enforcing the ban. They acknowledged the possibility that food stamp users could travel outside city limits to buy the prohibited drinks.
Advocates for the poor expressed alarm about the proposal, which the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said "punishes poor people for the supposed crime of being poor."
"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," said Joel Berg, the group's executive director. "The problem isn't that they're making poor choices, the problem is that they can't afford nutritious food."
There still are many unhealthful products New Yorkers could purchase with food stamps, including potato chips, ice cream and candy. Officials said the proposal targets sugary drinks because they are the largest contributor to obesity.
More than half of adult New York City residents are overweight or obese, along with nearly 40 percent of public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
City officials said lower-income residents are most likely to drink one or more sugar-sweetened drinks a day; adult-onset diabetes is also twice as common among poor New Yorkers compared to the wealthiest.
In New York, a proposal to adopt a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened soda failed to get out of the state Legislature earlier this year; Bloomberg backed the state proposal.