What can't food stamps buy? New York City wants sugary drinks on 'no' list

To combat obesity, New York City wants to ban the purchase of sodas and sugary drinks with food stamps. Some see rise of 'food police.'

Paul Sakuma/AP
Pepsi co. products A&W Cream Soda, Sierra Mist and Mt. Dew are shown on display at a grocery store in Palo Alto, Calif., on Oct. 6. To combat obesity, New York City could be the first to ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps.

New York City has long led the way in antiobesity and other health initiatives. It was among the first cities to ban trans fats from restaurants, require calorie counts on menus, and end smoking in outdoor public areas.

Now, thanks to a controversial new proposal, it could be the first to ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture to add sugary beverages like soda and sports drinks to the list of things food stamps cannot be used to buy, including alcohol, toiletries, and cigarettes. If passed, the measure would kick off a two-year pilot program in New York City.

"This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment," Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement.

But many antihunger advocates say Bloomberg's proposal crosses a line.

"We think it's a bad idea," says James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. "The food stamp program is strong precisely because it's come to be largely invisible at the checkout counter and treats people like normal consumers.… I think Bloomberg's proposal … makes the program more complicated, more stigmatized, more punitive. It doesn't make sense."

Some food stamp recipients, however, say Bloomberg's proposal is fair.

"I think it's fine," says Tammy Showler, a Rochester, N.Y., resident who has been on food stamps for one year. "People will stop feeding their kids soda. They can buy that with their own cash. It's not fair to use food stamps on stuff like soda," she says while shopping for vegetables at the Rochester Farmers Market.

Margaret O'Neill worked for three decades at Cornell University's Cooperative Extension, promoting good nutrition. She says research clearly points to sugary beverages as a leading factor in obesity. Still, she has reservations about Bloomberg's proposal.

"I think it's a slippery slope," says Ms. O'Neill. "I am a little concerned that [government] would become the food police."

Instead, she champions programs that encourage nutrition, like a program she helps run at the Rochester Public Market that allows customers to use food stamps at farmers' markets. The program processed $53,202 worth of food stamp transactions in 2008, when it launched. This year, it's on track to process $350,000 to $400,000 worth, O'Neill says.

"The best motivator," she says "is education and making sure people have access to healthy foods."

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