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Soda Industry Cashes In on Govt. Food Assistance Programs to Tune of $4 Bilion a Year

The debate over dropping junk food from the nation’s biggest nutrition program cuts across the political spectrum in unpredictable ways.
 
 
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As Congress resumes its wrangling over a long-overdue Farm Bill, conservatives are once again attacking their long-time bête noire, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. They’re threatening SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program and by far the biggest item in the Farm Bill) with everything from mandatory work requirements for participants to deep program-wide budget cuts.

Once the Farm Bill has passed and all the political flatulence has cleared, though, budget hawks and Tea Partiers are unlikely to have succeeded in undermining SNAP. With the economy stagnating, unemployment and inequality festering, employers refusing to pay living wages, and one American in six now facing food insecurity, the bulk of public opinion is behind beefing up food assistance rather than gutting it. 

But even among its fans and beneficiaries, there is recognition that SNAP could use some updating, especially with regard to its nutritional impact. So state governments from South Carolina to Maine to Wisconsin are considering legislation that would prohibit the purchase of soft drinks or other junk foods with SNAP credits. 

Proposals for deploying food assistance as a tool to influence consumers’ buying decisions are deeply controversial. And the debate over whether or not to drop nutrition-free items from the nation’s biggest nutrition program cuts across the political spectrum in often unpredictable ways.  

A sweet deal for Big Soda

Calls for an end to the soft-drink subsidy are coming from academia as well as from statehouses. A 2011 commentary last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association argued, 

The government purchases millions of servings of sugar-sweetened beverages for SNAP participants each day. This practice arguably erodes diet quality and promotes chronic illness among individuals who are at increased risk of obesity-related disease because of limited financial resources. 

Around the same time, a white paper from the Arizona State School of Nutrition and Health Promotion included this statement: 

Restricting options for purchase of unhealthy foods can be a powerful strategy for improving diets of SNAP recipients. There is strong scientific evidence for a restrictive strategy, and there is precedence from other federal programs such as WIC [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and NSLP [the National School Lunch Program], which limit benefits to the purchase of foods that are considered healthy.

Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has long advocated tight controls on the soft-drink industry, wrote last year, “To do nothing—while sugary drinks fuel an epidemic of obesity and other expensive diseases—would be reckless from a public health and fiscal standpoint.” Meanwhile, Daphne Hernandez, an assistant professor in the Human Development Department at Penn State, stated the case even more bluntly: “Continuing the use of taxpayer dollars to fund the purchase of soda through SNAP undermines the goal of SNAP.”

Advocates for limiting the range of products that benefits can buy have generally focused their efforts on carbonated drinks. For one thing, the sweet sodas make a nice fat target; the manufacturers rake in an estimated $4 billion per year from SNAP sales alone. Their products have a hefty impact, both nutritional and economic, and they could be easily identified and segregated  automatically at checkout through SNAP’s electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. 

Joining the chorus of demands for restrictions are some right-wing activists and legislators—people who would not seem to have the nutritional status of SNAP participants uppermost in their minds. Accusing soda manufacturers of “SNAPping up welfare dollars,” David Alamasi of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a scandal-ridden antigovernment group, asserted last month that although he’s “a vocal proponent of Coca-Cola's right to sell any and all of its products,” he doesn’t want them being purchased with what he regards as his money. “When it comes to public assistance,” he stated in a press release, “I want people buying what they need with my money and not what they desire."

 
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