The American Medical Association, along with a coalition of 18 mayors, came out against the eligibility for sugary drinks to be purchased under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
“Studies have shown that sugar-sweetened beverages account for 58 percent of beverages purchased under SNAP,” the AMA wrote in a press release. “Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain and a higher risk of future obesity in children.”
AMA policy, as of June 19, recommends the federal government remove sugary drinks from eligibility to be purchased with SNAP dollars. The new policy also encourages state health agencies to include nutrition information as part of the routine information sent to SNAP recipients.
Commentators in the health field have praised the stance as a move in the right direction, while some prominent members of the anti-hunger movement have called it a misguided move that stigmatizes the poor.
While AMA policy itself does not dictate any actual laws, the organization reflects the opinion of the largest group of physicians in the U.S.
But the group of mayors who signed on with the policy may have more political sway. The top offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and 15 other major cities, say that food items with no nutritional value harm the health of SNAP recipients.
Considering the SNAP program already disallows purchases of alcoholic beverages and hot food, removing sugary drinks from eligibility does not seem like much more of a restriction, said public health lawyer Michele Simon, who runs Eat Drink Politics and author of the 2012 report Food Stamps: Follow the Money.
“People are free to buy whatever they want with their own money, but a program that uses tax dollars to improve nutrition shouldn’t allow sugary beverages,” Simon told Food Safety News.
In response the the policy shift, the American Beverage Association called obesity a complex health condition, and that sugary drinks should not be singled out as the cause.
Prominent groups within the anti-hunger community have raised similar concerns. While obesity is a serious problem, it should be fought through health education and pro-nutrition incentives in SNAP, not prohibition, said Edward Cooney, Executive Director of the Congressional Hunger Center.
“Our view is that people have the smarts to purchase their own food and we’re opposed to all limitations on food choice,” Cooney said. “There’s no study that I’m aware of that links SNAP participation to obesity.”
Cooney referenced a U.S. Department of Agriculture “Healthy Eating Index” report from 2005 that found the diets of children in lower-income and higher-income families are nearly nutritionally equivalent. The report examined the diets of children under 18 years old based on 12 different nutritional criteria such as fruit, vegetable and whole-grain intake, as well as saturated fats and sugars.
Low-income children under 2 scored 56.5 out of 100 for diet quality, while high-income children of the same age scored 57.8. In the 2-18 years old category, low-income children scored 56.4 while high-income scored 55.4.
“Yes, obesity is a problem, but it’s a problem across all income levels,” Cooney said. “We shouldn’t just single out people in the low-income level, put them in a place where they’re stigmatized in the grocery store and told to put items back. Do we really want the government in our grocery baskets?”
Approximately 15 percent of Americans (47 million) used SNAP benefits to purchase food last year.
A spokeswoman for the AMA told Food Safety News that the new policy was determined at this year’s annual policymaking meeting based on the recommendation of a group of medical delegates, though the association’s new designation of obesity as a disease has overshadowed the other new policies for the most part.
Last Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down this year’s farm bill, which had already passed the Senate. The $955 million bill would have cut $20 million from the $700 million it allocates for SNAP over the next 10 years. Some republican members of the house argued that the program’s cuts were not deep enough.
In her 2012 report, Simon outlined the significant profits soft drink and sugary food manufacturers receive from SNAP dollars, though most information is guarded by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the private food companies. She also pointed out that several prominent anti-hunger groups, including the Congressional Hunger Center, accept donor money from cola and “junk food” makers.
Cooney said that his organization keeps on its website a list of donors that contribute to its national and international hunger-fighting fellowships. While the organization receives $2 million a year from Congress, it receives another $500,000 from 52 major donors, three of which are Coca Cola, PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association.
Simon said that while the public health and anti-hunger communities may not agree on sugary drinks, neither group wants to see cuts to SNAP. And funding may be easier to retain if the program is seen as one that improves the nation’s health, she said.
“We know that congress is going to cut SNAP, but the response is to not put your head in the sand and instead look at how to defend the program,” Simon said. “We should not just be helping low-income people from going hungry, but keeping them healthier. I think if we defended it that way, we’d have a better chance at defending it against these mean-spirited attacks.”© Food Safety News