Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

AMA, Mayors Say Food Stamps Should Not Buy Soft Drinks

This article has been updated to reflect additional information and include a post-publication interview with Edward Cooney, Executive Director of the Congressional Hunger Center.

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
  • Ned Hamson

    How about Ding Dongs when they come back on the market? Those little pies loaded with sugar? Bread with no nutrition but lots of sugar. Prepared meals with loads of sugar and salt? Control how people use SNAP just because you can and let those with more money eat what they want?

    • farmber

      You can’t buy tobacco products with SNAP benefits. Why should taxpayers subsidize junk food sales and crappy eating habits? And then have to bear the associated group medical expenses??

      Answer: Mostly because the junk food industry lobbyist insiders got their way in the SNAP program rule-making phase…

      • Emily Nelson

        People want rules like these to make themselves feel smug and superior about their own luck in life. This is just bigotry against the poor. By the way, your “burden” of food stamp benefits runs to about 10 cents per day. Quite a bargain to lord it over the less fortunate.

        • susanrudnicki

          Oh, come on! Pulling out the victimization card/bigotry slam is a cop-out. I was on food stamps all through college and it sure didn’t crimp my style that there were certain restrictions on items one could pour down the gullet! Give me a solid, thoughtful reason WHY soda should be fostered by the dollars of the SNAP program—how does this alleviate the hunger of those less able to feed themselves? Bet you are not able to put together a rational support argument—because there isn’t one. There are very few in any level of society now who are ignorant of the soda connection with poor nutrition. Multinational soda-poison purveyors are sure happy to have your defense, though. I’m sure the so-called “Beverage Industry lobbyists” would be thrilled to have alcoholic “beverages” added to the list of allowed purchases on SNAP. Now that McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are allowed junk food purveyors under the program (NO fast food was allowed when I was on food stamps) should we support every facet of processed junk food and drinks?

          • EdiblyOrganic

            Susan, I’ll bet your food stamps went a lot further than they do today. Unfortunately, they haven’t been adjusted to the cost of living.

            Also, when one is homeless, sometimes the only way to obtain a warm meal (especially when it’s cold outside)is to buy it at a fast food place. SNAP doesn’t allow recipients to purchase healthier hot food in a supermarket. Also, most people that I know that are on SNAP, and have a home, hardly ever use it to buy fast food. If they do, it’s maybe once a month to have a piece of pizza or a burger. It’s their big thrill of their month. They get to feel like a member of society, by going out once in a blue moon. Not someone that is generally judged, or given angry looks all the time.

      • Guest

        SNAP is for food, or things defined as food. Lobbyists influence regulations – sure they do. Tobacco is not defined as food. Taxpayers already subsidize junk food and crappy eating habits. All sodas get by as food and are not taxed. Senior citizens living on Social Security and eligible for Medicare can buy and eat what they want including all that crappy stuff and if they get sick from it, they get treated. If this was an everyone on their own society, we would not be doing well at all.

  • Mackenzie Dierks

    “Do we really want the government in our grocery baskets?” – If we’re talking about SNAP Programs, the government is already in that grocery basket, paying for that food. Any program you participate in will have rules. Adding one to the list does not automatically equal discrimination, especially when it’s regarding soda. They aren’t saying people aren’t allowed to purchase soda, like NYC wanted, simply that the government provided money can not be spent on that. The N in SNAP stands for nutrition and the arguments at the end of the article are about keeping Americans from hunger. As much as I love a Mt. Dew now and then i harbor no illusions that is contributes to combating my hunger or increasing my nutrition – and it sure as heck does not help my teeth.

  • J. McGill

    As much as I hate to defend consuming junk food . Have you ever checked the price of a 2-Liter of Pepsi versus a 2-Quart container of Orange Juice? Or a gallon of Tampico versus a gallon of Apple Juice or an other “helathy juice” for that matter? When you have children, and you are struggling financially, your goal is to feed them and sadly when you are in the store and the junk food is cheap that’s what you buy because it’s what you can get the most of. I wish there were cheap options for healthier products but in America it’s just not so…

  • EdiblyOrganic

    You want SNAP recipients to purchase healthy drinks? Give them enough money to afford such things! Also, many people on SNAP are homeless, meaning they’ve no refrigerator or home to store food items. I’m not saying that soft drinks are healthy, but they’re inexpensive and easy to obtain. The well intentioned politicians that lived off of what a SNAP recipient would receive in a week? Have them live on the streets during the experiment… Also, even if someone isn’t homeless, healthy fruit juice(without high fructose corn syrup, GMOs etc) is expensive.