NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s New Proposal: No Food Stamps for Soda

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New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene

It’s no secret that New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to force change in his city’s health. He banned smoking from all indoor public spaces (and wants to ban it in public parks, plazas and beaches too). He banned trans fats from city restaurants and store shelves. He required restaurants to post calorie counts on menus and launched a campaign against salt. Now America’s most militantly health-conscious mayor wants to bar the city’s 1.7 million food stamp recipients from purchasing soda and other sugary sodas with state funds.

Bloomberg and his health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, aim to curb the exploding rates of obesity and diabetes in the city, which they say are being worsened by consumption of soda. One in eight New Yorkers has diabetes, and poor New Yorkers are nearly twice as likely as rich residents to suffer from the disease. The New York Times reports:

City statistics released last month showed that nearly 40 percent of public-school children in kindergarten through eighth grade were overweight or obese, and that obesity rates were substantially higher in poor neighborhoods. City studies show that consumption of sugared beverages is consistently higher in those neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that New Yorkers spent $75 million to $135 million of the $2.7 billion in food stamps they received in 2009 on sodas and sugary drinks. “The use of food stamp benefits to support the purchase of sugar sweetened drinks not only contradicts the intent of this vital program, but it also subsidizes a serious public health epidemic,” said New York Governor David Paterson in support of Bloomberg’s measure. (More on Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Own Chubby Children?)

Not everyone agrees that restriction is the best solution. Advocates for the urban poor suggest that such a move would patronize and alienate an already stigmatized population. In 2004, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) rejected a similar Minnesota proposal to bar people from buying candy and soda with food stamps, because it perpetuated the stereotype that food stamp-users make bad food choices.

Still, no one argues that sugary sodas are a boon to health, and many nutrition experts agree they should be excised from Americans’ diets. From the New York Times:

Dr. Farley and the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Richard F. Daines, said in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Thursday that the ban would not reduce the ability of food-stamp recipients to feed their families. “They would still receive every penny of support they now get, meaning they would have as much, if not more, to spend on nutritious food,” Dr. Farley and Dr. Daines wrote. “And they could still purchase soda if they choose — just not with taxpayer dollars.”

Bloomberg has proposed instituting the soda ban for two years to assess its effects and determine whether it should be extended. Unlike many of his other health-focused measures, the mayor cannot legislate this one unilaterally. Instead, he has requested permission from the USDA, which funds the food-stamp program.

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