Two nutritionists have published commentary in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that calls for the federal government to revisit a ban on using food stamps to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages. Authored by Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity Director Kelly Brownell and Harvard School of Public Health Professor David Ludwig, the article responds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) rejection of a New York City proposed pilot program that would have prohibited soda purchases under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Additional details about USDA’s decision appear in Issue 407 of this Update.

The article notes that opposition to the proposal came from industry groups like the American Beverage Association but also “prominent antihunger groups,” some of which felt the ban would stigmatize SNAP recipients “and make them less likely to want to participate in the program.” To meet this challenge, the authors propose restructuring SNAP and similar programs “to align government spending with the long-term public health and economic interests of the nation.” It also calls on USDA to conduct its own pilot studies in an effort to provide policy-makers with “objective data” on the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits.  

“The government purchases millions of servings of sugar sweetened beverages for SNAP participants each day,” conclude Brownell and Ludwig. “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. Moreover, the costs of treating chronic illness associated with increased sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in this population will fall primarily to taxpayers. “