The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has approved and submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) a New York City proposal “to exclude sugar-sweetened beverages, the largest single contributor to the obesity epidemic, from the list of allowable purchases through the nation’s food stamp program (also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP),” according to an October 7, 2010, press release.  

Unveiled by Governor David Paterson (D) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), the initiative would prohibit the city’s food stamp users from buying soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages for up to two years while researchers study the ban’s impact.  

If accepted by USDA, the plan would define sugar-sweetened beverages “as those containing more than 10 calories per 8 ounces (except fruit juices without added sugar, milk products and milk substitutes).” It would also provide for “a rigorous evaluation…to determine if the initiative results in fewer purchases of sugar-sweetened drinks, and assists in combating the associated health effects.”  

Noting that “close to 40 percent of public school students in kindergarten through 8th grade are overweight or obese,” the press release adds that USDA’s National School Lunch/School Breakfast Program and Women, Infants and Children Program already bar the sale or purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages, while SNAP itself rules out some items like alcohol and cigarettes. “The use of Food Stamp benefits to support the purchases of sugar sweetened beverages not only contradicts the intent of this vital program, but it also subsidizes a serious public health epidemic,” opines Paterson. “We are helping record numbers of low-income families put food on the table, and we are very proud of that accomplishment. But there is clear evidence that low-income individuals have higher rates of obesity and are more at risk of becoming obese than other groups.”  

Meanwhile, New York State Health Commissioner Richard Daines and New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley have penned an October 7, 2010, New York Times op-ed in support of the proposal. The article claims that this policy “would be entirely in keeping with existing standards for defining what is and isn’t nutritious,” pointing to USDA’s assessment of sugar-sweetened beverages as “foods of minimal nutritional value.” The authors also view the city’s SNAP proposal as part of its many obesity-reduction initiatives, including “programs to increase the availability of fresh produce in poor neighborhoods; … nutrition requirements for meals served in schools, after-school and day care programs and centers for the elderly; and… advertising campaigns to educate the public about obesity and nutrition.”  

But other consumer and nutrition advocates have been more circumspect about the plan. In 2004, USDA reportedly denied Minnesota’s attempt to institute similar restrictions on the ground that they would “’perpetuate the myth’ that food-stamp users made poor shopping decisions.” As George Hacker, senior policy adviser for the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s health promotion project, apparently told The New York Times, “a more equitable approach” might focus on educational campaigns. “The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages,” he was quoted as saying. “However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps.” See The New York Times, October 6, 2010.