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Food stamps should be spent on food, not soda

Friday , January 19, 2018 - 4:30 AM1 comment

BLOOMBERG NEWS

If they ever finish arguing about immigration and the budget, members of Congress can be expected to turn to food stamps, which conservative Republicans want to cut and Democrats don't. For their own sake and to promote public health, both sides might want to focus on a simple reform that deserves bipartisan support: Require that food stamps be used for food.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, households receiving federal food-stamp benefits spend more money on soft drinks than on any other grocery item. Overall, they devote 9.3 percent of their food budgets to "sweetened beverages," which include sodas and iced teas, compared to 7.1 percent for households that don't receive benefits. The government estimates that beneficiaries spend $608.7 million a year on soft drinks and an additional $110 million on juices.

Because low-income shoppers typically use their own money to supplement government benefits, it's impossible to know precisely how much the $74-billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is subsidizing soda consumption. But even a modest amount is too much, given the correlation between sugary drinks and obesity, diabetes and heart disease. One study estimates that prohibiting food-stamp funds from being spent on sweetened beverages would prevent more than 400,000 Americans from becoming obese.

Despite such findings, the government has resisted calls to restrict SNAP benefits to food. Opponents say that placing additional limits on what food stamps can buy is both cumbersome and paternalistic. The junk-food industry has also lobbied heavily against restrictions. In 2011, the federal government denied a request from New York City to ban food stamps from being spent on sugary drinks, arguing instead for "incentive-based solutions" for improving diets. (At the time the city's mayor was Bloomberg LP founder and majority owner Michael R. Bloomberg.)

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. In addition to granting waivers to states and cities seeking to ban food stamps from being used on soda, the government should expand experiments that provide rebates to SNAP recipients for purchases of fruits and vegetables and offer bonuses for shopping at farmers' markets.

At the same time, Congress should reject the White House's proposed 30 percent cut to the food-stamp program over 10 years. Savings from beverage restrictions should be used to strengthen SNAP, not starve it.

Food stamps have proved to be an effective tool for helping to lift millions of Americans, especially children, out of poverty. The government can do more to ensure that those who receive them also gain the benefits of a more healthy diet.

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