Should we ban poor people from buying soda? A recent article in the New York Times reported that families who receive food stamps buy more sugary drinks than families who don’t, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though the U.S.D.A. repeated that the results don’t reveal a dramatic difference between the shopping carts of Americans, rich or poor, some public health experts remain skeptical. They want to ban food stamps from being used to buy soda.
However, there are limits in the U.S.D.A. study and its 2011 data collection. It failed to consider geographical differences between American spending and eating habits. It also assumed low-income families in urban neighborhoods spent most of their food stamps in grocery stores, rather than the corner store or bodega down the street.
Even if it’s true that poor people drink more sugary drinks, this habit won’t be broken with a ban on buying soda using Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or federal food stamps. If anything, the proposed policy, and all the lobbying against it, is a distraction from the real problem: our government’s cozy relationship with agribusiness.
First, the study published by the Department of Agriculture was limited in scope. The data came from a single anonymous grocery chain in the United States. Since grocery chains are regional, were they Safeways in California or Winn Dixies in the South? What about Hannafords in New England?
The Washington Post reported that the public health of Americans, and their daily eating, drinking and smoking habits, varies from region to region. For example, New Englanders are healthier overall, but more likely to smoke and drink than Southerners. Relying on data from one regional grocery chain, it might be a leap to make assumptions on what all SNAP families scan at the register.
Convenience stores, local bodegas and bulk warehouses were not included in the analysis. Low-income families are more likely to live in food deserts where there is no nearby grocery store. The local shops not included in this analysis might be more expensive, but it would likely be more convenient.
On the other hand, bulk stores sell cheaper groceries in bigger packages. It’s possible that low-income households spent more of their food stamps, here.
Regardless, let’s say more studies are done and new evidence comes out that SNAP households are spending more on sugary beverages than non-SNAP families. The government is subsidizing soda purchases.
It’s clear our government has a direct stake in public health, from providing health insurance through the Affordable Care Act to footing the bill for emergency care. It’s how politicians justify a “sin” tax on alcohol and smoking bans in restaurants. It’s why some states refuse to legalize marijuana and why others allow for its medical use.
Offering free healthcare while subsidizing harmful habits doesn’t make sense. Private companies that churn out snack cakes and soft drinks essentially cash checks from Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, American taxpayers bear the lifetime cost of chronic disease, like Type II diabetes.
There’s no doubt some good intentions behind preventing food stamps from paying for junk food. It’s an attempt to break the chain between poverty and poor health. It’s just misdirected.
In the debate over soda and food stamps, an estimated $357 million or the yearly amount spent on soda by SNAP recipients, is at stake. Yet, there’s a bigger subsidy, one nearly ten-fold in size, that no one on Capitol Hill wants to wrestle with.
The number one ingredient in soda is high fructose corn syrup, a clear, gooey sweetener derived from field corn. In 2014, our government spent $2.3 billion subsidizing corn. Why are politicians so hell-bent on regulating individual habits, yet blind to regulating the corporate subsidies that encourage unhealthy consumption?
Soda is engineered to be addictive; one sip releases a slew of feel-good chemicals that prevent satiety and triggers cravings. Regular soda drinkers are likely swayed by these effects when paused in the aisle lined with liters of Coca-Cola. Limiting food stamp purchases would crack down on addicted citizens, but leave the “drug lords” untouched.
For food companies that profit from America’s sugar addiction, a SNAP ban on soda wouldn’t put a dent in the billions of dollars in corn subsidies they receive each year. Lobbyists bat around ethics with the public, inciting rallies over the soda ban on the table. For lobby groups, it must feel like a light-hearted scrimmage. Their biggest subsidy isn’t on the mound, but hidden safely in the bullpen.