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Mayors Urge Ban on Soda Purchases with SNAP Benefits

Mayors Urge Ban on Soda Purchases with SNAP Benefits


A letter from Bloomberg and other mayors to Congress makes soda ban a nationwide subject

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Some might have to think twice about reaching for soda and sugary drinks.

Yet another action has come about relating to the soda ban.

Mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and 15 other cities are reviving an act that would forbid food stamps to be used to by soda and other sugary drinks.

Tuesday, the mayors sent a joint letter addressed to Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi that has been released by Bloomberg’s office. “As mayors of major cities across the United States, we see the impact that poverty and poor health have on our most vulnerable residents,” it says. “We urge you to maintain funding for [food stamps, or technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] and also to consider our suggestions for its improvement.”

The American Beverage Association has previously combated similar claims about residents inflicted with poverty and poor health, saying that obesity affects Americans at all income levels and should not be singled out.

The letter goes on to ask for Congressional support both at state and local levels to “ensure public confidence that food stamp dollars are getting to those in need.” Last year, more than 47 million Americans used food stamps. The SNAP website lists beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, and tobacco as items that cannot be purchased with the benefits.

No comment has been made yet by either Congressional official.


Q&A: Poverty and Soda Consumption a Recipe for Obesity?

How can we stop Americans from getting fatter? The issue continues to cook up controversy as officials target soda's contribution to obesity. Recently New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed preventing people who receive food stamps from using them to purchase soda and other sugary drinks.

Washington, D.C., officials led the way in May when they approved a 6 percent tax on such beverages. Most of the tax's impact will be on purchases by children and teens, because they drink the most sugary drinks . Meanwhile, nutritionists and activists across the nation have campaigned to wipe out "food deserts" &mdash poor communities that are devoid of grocery stores offering healthy, fresh foods, leaving residents with little choice but to buy calorie-ridden convenience foods at local bodegas.

But will such measures work? MyHealthNewsDaily spoke to childhood nutrition expert Simone French, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, who was recently awarded a $7 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to co-direct an obesity prevention center.

Q: Is it really possible to link one food, like soda, to expanding waistlines? And how does poverty fit in?

A: The evidence is compelling that lower-income people have diets that are poorer-quality compared to higher-income people. Food pricing is an important issue. Cheap foods tend to be of less nutritional quality. Soft drinks are very inexpensive and provide a lot of calories for pennies. The evidence that soft drinks are linked to obesity has been reviewed about six times during the past few years. The most recent review concluded that soft drinks contribute only a small amount to obesity, but scientists differ in their interpretation of the evidence available.

Q: How could sweetened drinks cause a person to get fat? Is it just a matter of calories?

A: Sweetened beverages add calories to the daily energy intake and easily add up to too many. Some have argued that liquid calories do not send satiety signals to the brain as well as solid calories, and this may be part of the reason people can drink excessive calories in the form of sweetened beverages more easily than overeating food-based calories.

Q: What does scientific evidence tell us about "food deserts"?

A: The concept of food deserts is interesting, but it has been difficult to show with actual data. Sometimes, there are food stores in lower-income areas but people may not shop there. Sometimes the food stores available have limited healthy selections the fresh-produce quality is low and the price is high.

Q: What are your thoughts on the proposal to ban the use of food stamps to buy soda in New York City?

A: Although this policy question is highly politicized, as a public health professional and obesity prevention researcher, I believe that federal dollars should be used to support the purchase of only healthful foods among those who need food assistance. Soft drinks are a very clear example of a non-healthful food &ndash pure sugar and no nutrients. Food stamps should be valid only for the purchase of foods and beverages that meet some agreed-upon nutrition criteria.

Q: What are your thoughts on a soda tax, and how does it differ from the potential food stamp regulation?

A: Soda tax is a user-tax that affects all purchasers of the beverages. I think it is also a reasonable policy strategy to discourage intake of beverages known to provide calories and no nutrition. Q: Should legislators take steps to make it more difficult for poor people to buy unhealthy food? A: Yes. Q: How much of a difference do you think taxes on junk foods will make in wiping out obesity?

A: It is known that obesity is caused by many different factors, each contributing a certain amount to what we observe as the obesity epidemic . Few informed people would think that any one action will "wipe out" the obesity epidemic.

Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages may help decrease obesity through several pathways. One is to reduce the purchase of sugared beverages, because of the higher price that a tax will result in. Second, taxing sugar-sweetened beverages serves a social influence and education function. It sends a clear social message that these types of beverages are not healthful and may cause excess energy intake and weight gain.

Q: What other large-scale efforts could be taken to combat obesity?

A: There are many &mdash too many to list here. Federally financed food programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and the school meals programs are great first steps to promote healthful eating and healthful food purchases, because these programs affect a very large number of U.S. adults and children, and those at most risk of unhealthful diets and obesity.

Q: At the end of the day, do you think we'll solve the obesity crisis?

A: I would like to think that we can have an impact to reduce obesity in our population. Certainly some segments of the population have managed to remain normal weight despite the toxic environment. But if we want the majority of the population to keep a healthy weight, the environment will have to change.

It may take years to get people to support social and policy changes that will help change the environment. Some examples are the sugar beverage taxes, calorie-labeling of food at restaurants, and removing government subsidies for commodities like sugar and helping support lower prices for fresh produce, to make healthful eating more affordable for people with lower incomes.


Taking food from children?

About 265,000 children will lose access to free school meals as part of the cuts, according to an analysis from the anti-hunger group Share Our Strength. That could have a devastating trickle-down impact on children and their futures, Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, said in congressional testimony in June.

"Loss of access to SNAP for these kids and families would ripple throughout their lives, eliminating needed nutrition at home and eligibility for free school meals as well," Davis said. A lack of food "exacerbates all the other problems they face&ndashdiminishing their academic performance, mental and physical health, over-all well-being, and dimming opportunities to escape the cycle of poverty."

Those dangers were highlighted by the mayors. "Regular access to healthy and affordable meals is one of the strongest predictors of improved school performance, better health, and sound childhood development," they wrote. "Our nation cannot remain globally competitive if our children do not have enough to eat."


How The Conservative Obsession With Policing Poor People’s Shopping Carts Got Started

The first time a state government tried to bar food stamps recipients from buying certain types of food it deemed &ldquojunk,&rdquo the War on Terror hadn&rsquot yet reached Iraq and Facebook hadn&rsquot been invented yet. More than a dozen years later, so-called &ldquojunk food bans&rdquo remain en vogue with conservative lawmakers who have not heeded the lessons of that first failed attempt.

At the outset of 2003, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) kicked off his first term by proposing &ldquothe next generation&rdquo of welfare reform in Minnesota. Amid a laundry list of other changes, Pawlenty wanted to ban Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from buying junk food. States cannot take such a step unless they are granted a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and no state had ever applied for one for the purpose Pawlenty had ginned up.

Legislators and agency heads deliberated for a year on how to define &ldquojunk food&rdquo before opting to base the rule on Minnesota&rsquos sales tax law, which taxes certain foodstuffs deemed unhealthy while exempting the rest. The delineation is messy and contradictory, as the Associated Press detailed in 2003. &ldquoThe state, for example, taxes Hershey&rsquos bars but not Kit Kat bars &mdash because anything made with flour isn&rsquot considered a candy. It taxes coffee drinks that are sweetened but not those that contain milk. It taxes gum but not licorice. It taxes marshmallows but not ice cream bars.&rdquo

Despite these foibles, Pawlenty&rsquos idea has enjoyed significant popularity elsewhere in the years since. Maine lawmakers debated banning soda from being bought with SNAP in 2009, though the legislation went nowhere. In 2010, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I) requested a similar waiver for New York City, and was denied. Junk food bans passed a committee vote in Texas in 2011 but died on the floor. Iowa and California lawmakers introduced similar rules that year. Bans were introduced in eight separate states in 2012, with Florida defeating a proposal that had cleared the committee stage and Mississippi deciding at the last minute to revoke its waiver request. Maine, Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina, and Delaware all toyed with the idea in 2013 and 2014.

And this spring, the bans are on the march again in Wisconsin and Maine.

The list of foods affected by Wisconsin&rsquos new bill borrows some of the odd hypocrisy that marked Pawlenty&rsquos inaugural attempt over a decade ago. Sharp cheese would be restricted, but plain cheddar would not. White potatoes escape the proposal untouched, but russet potatoes would be harder to get.

The law would also make it harder to buy spaghetti sauces and spices to flavor recipes, a constraint seemingly at odds with conservative rhetoric about what&rsquos wrong with public assistance programs.

&ldquoWe hear an awful lot in the post-welfare reform era about moving people to self-sufficiency,&rdquo Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) legal director Ellen Vollinger told ThinkProgress. &ldquoTelling adults they can&rsquot make the same choices within the grocery store that others make, and then prepare the meals they want with the ingredients they want, doesn&rsquot seem at all consistent with the argument that these changes move people to self-sufficiency. I always thought that was a little strange.&rdquo

The USDA ultimately rejected Pawlenty&rsquos request for a junk food ban in 2004. Officials noted the contradictory treatment of different brands of candy bars and warned of &ldquoconfusion and embarrassment&rdquo at checkout counters. They worried that making retailers responsible for policing shopping carts would upset what Vollinger called &ldquothe wise decision to use the regular rails of commerce [for food assistance] as opposed to the government setting up its own food warehouses for low-income people.&rdquo

But most of all, the administrators argued that even a perfectly-designed ban would fix a non-existent problem. &ldquo[I]mplementation of this waiver would perpetuate the myth that participants do not make wise food purchasing decisions,&rdquo the rejection letter said, when &ldquoresearch has shown [they] are smart shoppers&rdquo whose nutrition intake varies little from that of higher-income people.

In 2015, the poor are still smart shoppers. The USDA published research in early May comparing the food consumption patterns of SNAP recipients to both wealthier people and low-income families not receiving SNAP. The findings undermine the common conservative notion that the poor splurge on luxuries and empty calories.

Just 3 percent of SNAP recipients eat shellfish &mdash banned outright from SNAP spending in the Wisconsin measure &mdash compared to 4.4 percent of non-SNAP families poor enough to be eligible for the program and 3.9 percent of higher-income families. The participating families were roughly as likely to consume proteins as the non-participating families, while relying much more heavily on chicken, pork, bacon, eggs, and beans. About 74 percent of SNAP families consume sweets and desserts, compared to about 80 percent of wealthier families. These differences often play out amid stark and persistent contrasts between how the store shelves are stocked in low-income neighborhoods and affluent ones.

Both conservative proponents of the bans and the public health advocates who back them often focus on soda consumption. The USDA did find that food stamps recipients are more prone to soda-drinking than others &mdash󈐟.8 percent of SNAP recipients surveyed had consumed soda in the past day, compared to 50.3 percent of the overall population &mdash but those overall numbers do not account for demographic differences. When the data is adjusted for factors like ethnicity, gender, household composition, and education level, the differences in soda consumption melt away. The USDA has previously concluded that &ldquoSNAP participants are no more likely to consume [sugar-sweetened beverages] than lower income nonparticipants&rdquo in the same demographic group. And the rate of soda consumption among poor families wouldn&rsquot necessarily change if lawmakers create an extra humiliation at the cash register when a poor family wants root beer.

&ldquoIt isn&rsquot the case that SNAP clients are less interested in good nutrition than anybody else,&rdquo Vollinger said. &ldquoThey&rsquore very interested in it. They just can&rsquot afford it.&rdquo

The USDA strongly prefers to help SNAP users afford healthier food rather than punish them for failing to do so. When the agency rejected Bloomberg&rsquos 2011 request for a waiver to ban soda, Secretary Tom Vilsack invoked the USDA&rsquos &ldquolongstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions that are better-suited for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals&rdquo who rely on SNAP. It was the second time the agency had rebuffed the junk food ban idea. If either Wisconsin or Maine ultimately file for a waiver, it will be just the fourth time the USDA has gotten such a request.

At the same time that it rejects nanny-state ideas about food stamp diets, the USDA makes various efforts to help food stamps recipients eat healthier. A years-old program called SNAP-Ed funds classroom education for SNAP recipients on nutrition and shopping tricks, though federal funding cuts in recent years have seriously curtailed its budget.

The agency&rsquos more recent attempts to incentivize healthy shopping and eating in SNAP are more aggressive than education. Food stamps recipients can swipe their EBT cards at farmers&rsquo markets and get twice as much to spend in market-only voucher tokens, thanks to a $100 million program tucked into the 2014 Farm Bill. (Mississippi rescinded its request for a junk food ban waiver because it decided &ldquoto focus on improving SNAP participants&rsquo access to farmers&rsquo markets&rdquo instead, a USDA official told ThinkProgress.)

The farmers market policy grew out of a narrowly-targeted pilot program in the mid-2000s, and the USDA has funded other incentive-based pilot programs aimed at promoting nutrition on a SNAP budget. One such program in Massachusetts credited 30 cents back to a SNAP recipient&rsquos EBT card for every dollar they spent on a targeted list of fruits and vegetables. After about two years, the pilot program had demonstrated a significant jump in the intake of fruits and vegetables among participating families as compared to those who were left out.

&ldquoIncentives help, but the biggest incentive these families are facing is that they don&rsquot have a big enough food budget,&rdquo said Vollinger. FRAC supports the USDA&rsquos attempts to create positive, carefully tailored nutrition incentives, she said, &ldquobut sometimes people forget that really it&rsquos the base benefit amount. If we could get that improved, a lot of this would take care of itself.&rdquo


Proposals to ban purchase of sugary drink with food stamps won't work

The same flaws that caused a New York judge to overturn Mayor Bloomberg's ban on big sugary drinks are inherent in proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps. Such bans are unlikely to help fight obesity and can do substantial damage to the safety net.

Monday's court ruling blocking Mayor Bloomberg’s 'soda ban' restored New Yorkers’ freedom to supersize their sugary drinks. The judge reasoned that the rule limiting the size of sugary drinks to be sold at NYC eateries was arbitrary and capricious because it applied to some but not all food establishments, it excludes other beverages with higher concentrations of sweeteners, and because the loopholes in the rule – such as no limits on refills – “serve to gut the purpose of the rule.”

Various proposals to limit soda consumption have been popular among the public health community. Advocates ranging from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman are calling for a ban on the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages with food stamps. Media outlets recently reported health officials in South Carolina are considering requesting permission to implement such a ban. A similar proposal in New York City was recently rejected.

The same types of flaws that caused the New York judge to overrule the soda size-limits are inherent in these proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps. Not only will this policy likely not change what food-stamp recipients drink, but it may also harm the overall food-stamp program.

The food stamp program – officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – is a cornerstone of America’s safety net, providing food assistance to just more than 1 in every 7 Americans.

Monthly SNAP benefits are distributed via electronic benefit transfer cards that function like debit cards, which can be used at most grocery stores and many other outlets such as convenience stores and farmers markets. Since its inception in the 1960s, the program's recipients have been able to use their benefits to purchase almost any foods at the grocery store, except for alcohol, vitamins, and hot foods intended for immediate consumption like rotisserie chickens.

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Public-health advocates rightly point out that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of excess calories in the average American diet, and they provide no nutritional benefit. Assuredly, low-income and higher-income Americans alike would be better off if they substituted water for some of their daily soda consumption.

But the policy recommendation to disallow the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP benefits exaggerates the potential impacts on obesity such a ban would have. This is because the rationale for the ban is based on a false understanding of how SNAP benefits work.

By design, almost all SNAP recipients with children use the benefits in addition to some of their own cash income to purchase groceries. Indeed, that’s why the program is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program it is intended to work to extend a family’s food purchasing power, not to cover 100 percent of food purchases.

According to the best available data on spending patterns in the United States, the Consumer Expenditure Survey, a family on food stamps usually receives an average of $225 per month in benefits (currently increased to $280 because of temporary stimulus funding) but spends a total of $350 on food and drinks, making up the difference with $125 in cash. About $13 total is spent on sugar-sweetened beverages eligible for purchase with SNAP, or the dollar equivalent of about two cases of Coca-Cola.

What will happen to this family if they cannot use SNAP benefits to purchase soda and sweetened beverages? Probably nothing. They can continue to purchase the same $13 worth of Coke or Dr Pepper, but just have to make certain to pay for them out of their own cash instead of their benefits.

In addition to likely failing to curb the purchase of sugary drinks, this policy proposal may also harm the SNAP program. Additional restrictions on eligible foods will increase the administrative costs of the program, which is probably not a good idea in the current budgetary environment. They will also increase the stigma faced by recipients when they use the benefits.

There are better policy ideas out there that are more likely to improve the diets of food stamp recipients. For example, over the past decade, fresh fruits and vegetables have become relatively more expensive compared to foods that are considered less healthy. Policies can be designed to make these foods more affordable and provide incentives for low-income families to purchase them.

Many local areas and even a few states give bonus dollars for benefits used at farmers markets, allowing recipients to stretch their food budget farther when they buy fresh produce. The Department of Agriculture has been running a demonstration program – the Healthy Incentives Pilot – in Massachusetts that gives SNAP recipients a 30-cent rebate for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables. Policies like these make it easier to choose healthy foods.

The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Examination of the Adequacy of Food Resources and SNAP Allotments (of which I was a member) recently released an expert panel report. The report highlighted a range of wonkish but important policy changes to the SNAP benefit formula that would strengthen the program by increasing the payoffs to work, recalibrating how benefits vary across different family sizes, and so on. Policy changes along these lines will strengthen the purchasing power of SNAP benefits, which is more likely to improve dietary choices of recipients than the proposed restrictions on sugary drinks are.

I do not mean to understate the importance of fighting the obesity epidemic that is hitting Americans of all income-levels. Public-health advocates are right to call attention to our excessive consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages as one cause.

But in order to make progress against this public-health crisis, we need constructive policy solutions aimed more broadly, not initiatives that single out and stigmatize recipients of public assistance. Vending-machine restrictions, labeling calories on the front of packages, and, dare I say, even Mayor Bloomberg’s much-maligned limit on the size of soda containers in New York City – if it should be upheld on appeal and amended to address its loopholes – are all steps that might make progress in this area.

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Without question, the advocates for a policy to ban the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits have the best of intentions. But policymakers need to be careful not to let their zeal for combating obesity push them into hastily adopting policies that at best are unlikely to help fight obesity, and, at worst, can do substantial damage to the safety net.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She studies the impacts of public policies on children.


Editorial: Are we subsidizing a public health crisis by allowing the poor to buy soda with food stamps?

A major study of the grocery-buying habits of millions of Americans released late last year found that people using food stamps generally make the same unhealthy food choices as everyone else in America. Too many sweets, salty snacks and prepared desserts. Junk food, in other words.

But when it came to soda and its sugary ilk, the results were more surprising, and not in a good way. According to the USDA-funded study, shoppers using food stamps spent a larger share of their budget — 9.25% to be exact — on sugar-sweetened beverages than other shoppers. Even more startling: Food-stamp shoppers bought more soda than any other single grocery item.

The new data revived an old debate about banning soda from the $71-billion food-stamp program. In February, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing to gather testimony about the pros and cons of such a restriction. It does seem counterproductive to spend billions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to improve the nutrition of low-income Americans on a product with little or no nutritional value. It is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, after all. What’s worse is that soda has been identified by public health experts as one of the prime culprits in soaring U.S. obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates.

Food-stamp shoppers bought more soda than any other single grocery item.

The study and committee debate, however, raised some of the same uncomfortable issues that have caused the proposal to languish in the past. On the conservative side, folks have worried that this type of nanny-state regulation will lead to other heavy-handed health-related restrictions (enforced exercise, perhaps). Liberals, meanwhile, have been concerned that it is patronizing and punitive to tell people how to spend their government benefits. Add in the opposition from beverage industry lobby and it’s no surprise this idea hasn’t gotten very far when it’s been proposed in the past. In recent years, a handful of states and cities, including New York City, have tried to impose such a requirement, but were blocked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The difference now is that the attitude toward soda has rapidly soured as more evidence has poured in that beverages with added sugars are making people fat and sick. The USDA has issued dietary guidelines warning people to limit their consumption of food with added sugars, the largest sources of which are sweetened beverages. This belief helped San Francisco, Philadelphia and handful of other cities push through new taxes on soda. A handful more are considering their own soda levies, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an effort to adopt a statewide soda tax in California before too long.

We know that there are detrimental health effects of drinking lots of soda, but we don’t know if barring SNAP recipients from spending their benefits on soda will really improve their health. It’s worth finding out by undertaking a limited pilot program, regardless of the qualms we may have about imposing restraints on the poor that better-off Americans don’t face. The assumption is that those billions of dollars not going to buy Coke or Red Bull will be spent on healthier food. But that may not be the case. What if consumption of other sugary items, like ice cream and pudding, increases? Or if SNAP recipients simply transferred their sweet drink habit ounce-for-ounce to more expensive and still sugar-laden fruit juice? Or if they spent their non-SNAP money on soda? Before making a permanent change, we need to know if it would improve nutrition or be pointlessly punitive.

But it is a good step to take to gather data. And the argument that it would be too hard on grocers to carve out sugary drinks doesn’t hold water. As the study shows, modern grocery check stand technology is sophisticated enough to easily separate out purchases by UPC code. Indeed, SNAP already comes with restrictions on alcohol, tobacco and hot foods, among other things. Grocers don’t have a problem sorting them out. The Women, Infant and Children food-assistance program is even more prescriptive, permitting only specific items to be purchased: milk, cheese, cereal and formula, for example, but absolutely nothing with added sugar or artificial sweetener. Ideally, a pilot program would also find ways to improve access to safe drinking water. One of the reasons that low-income people may choose sweetened beverages is that their drinking water isn’t reliable.

Denying poor people the ability to use food aid to buy a Coke on a hot day may raise some unsettling questions. Yet the findings in the USDA’s study about excessive soda consumption shouldn’t be ignored.

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Why We Don’t Need A Soda Ban

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed a big soda ban in May 2012, and his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, has vociferously supported the initiative. The mayors aimed to limit sodas to 16-ounce servings in many locations around the city.

In an earlier ruling in March of 2013, the ban was overturned on the basis of its “arbitrary and capricious” nature. Indeed, while soda is often blamed for the crisis of obesity and diabetes, other sugary drinks not targeted by the ban are equally harmful. Exceptions from the rule enjoyed by some businesses, such as convenience stores and grocery stores, were also criticized as arbitrary.

The public never much supported the effort to ban big sodas. Public opinion polls regularly showed that only a small minority of New Yorkers supported the soda ban, and a majority opposed it. The rest remained undecided.

Public health advocates, on the other hand, generally supported the initiative and have lamented its failure. They claim that limiting soda sizes would curtail the consumption of cheap, nutritionally vacant calories, and consumers would thereby be protected from obesity and diabetes. Public health advocates blame the lack and erosion of public support on the millions spent by the beverage industry to frame the soda ban as an infringement of individual liberty and unfair to businesses.

This chapter of the soda ban saga has more or less sputtered out the New York City courts and the public have spoken clearly and conclusively. But it is not the last we’ll hear of such efforts. City health officials have vowed to do a better job next time of winning the hearts and minds of the public. Many legal objections to the rule are based on technicalities that may be smoothed over – by extending the rule to all sugary drinks, eliminating exceptions and loopholes, and gaining support from City Council. Additionally, there are other strategies that could be pursued to a similar end in California, the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco may soon implement taxes (rather than bans) on sugary drinks.

All of these efforts are of noble intent, and I find it challenging to take seriously the notion that limiting sugary drink consumption by whatever means wouldn’t improve public health, as various extreme voices suggest. It seems likely that if New York City sodas were sold in smaller sizes, at least some people would drink less soda. That would be a win for public health.

But is a ban or tax is the most effective means of curtailing our sugary drink habit? The underlying message and assumption seems to be that without such measures, consumers will continue to buy absurdly large sodas, which will naturally sustain market demand for absurdly large sodas.

The Board of Health aims to do a better job of convincing the public that a big soda ban is good for them, hoping to reframe their efforts as “giving consumers the option” to drink more reasonably sized beverages. But why not spend that money and energy – and political and cultural capital – on convincing people not to consume too much soda? To buy less soda?

A ban on big sodas would eliminate big sodas from the market, but so, too, would a sudden collapse of market demand.

In fact, convincing the public to drink less soda has already proven effective. Consumption of soda has declined precipitously over the last nine years. It’s no wonder the beverage industry fought the New York City soda ban so vigorously. Consumers are realizing that excessive soda consumption may lead to obesity and diabetes, and they are cutting back in response.

What would probably help more is to extend the public health message to say that overconsumption of sugary drinks – all sugary drinks – may lead to diabetes, obesity, and related medical conditions.

It is clear from the attempts of New York City Board of health and numerous other administrative bodies across the nation that banning or taxing a product like soda is difficult, expensive, and often fruitless. Such efforts also seem to presume that consumers will not modify their behavior – that no productive cultural shift will occur.

Why not, instead, faith in the common sense and self-preservation instincts of the general public? That is not to say, as many have, that the government should not get involved in food choices. Existing education and advocacy programs empower consumers by providing them the knowledge they need to make healthy choices. Michelle Obama is doing it with her Let’s Move campaign. Tools like the Nutrition Facts label, which the FDA is redesigning for the first time in 20 years to reflect advances in our understanding of nutrition, increase transparency of food information.

These successes (such as the existence of a Nutrition Facts label) and failures (such as the misperception that some sugary drinks are healthier than soda) can guide our next steps. With what may be naïve optimism, I predict that sugary drink sales will flag as consumers sour on the products that are so damaging to our public health. If such a cultural shift does not occur, a ban, tax, or some such form of market intervention will be needed to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. I’m not yet convinced the situation is so hopeless.


Virginia senators urge USDA to approve request for SNAP online pilot program

Virginia's two Democratic senators are asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve Virginia's request to participate in a new pilot program that would let SNAP recipients use their benefits to buy groceries online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Farm Bill passed back in 2014 requires the USDA to establish a pilot program testing the feasibility of SNAP beneficiaries using their benefits online with authorized retailers. Since that time, only a few states have been authorized to be a part of that pilot program, with systems set up to allow SNAP recipients to use their benefits online.

During the current public health emergency, though, the USDA has been working to expand the program to more states on a case-by-case basis, if they meet the requirements to administer the online program.

“The current public health crisis has resulted in an unprecedented rise in unemployment and a subsequent increase in demand for our nation’s anti-hunger programs, including SNAP, " wrote Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. "While USDA has moved swiftly to reduce barriers and increase access to this program during the current public health emergency, most SNAP recipients are only able to utilize these benefits in person at grocery stores or other retailers. This requirement places SNAP recipients at higher risk of infection, as they are not able to utilize various online grocery delivery services that are available for consumers."

In their letter, they urge the USDA to approve a request from the Virginia Department of Social Services to be a part of the pilot program, while also urging the program to be expanded nationwide.

“To ensure the health and safety of SNAP beneficiaries in the Commonwealth, we urge USDA to work with the Virginia Department of Social Services to approve Virginia’s request to participate in the Department’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot as quickly as possible. We also urge USDA to do everything within its power to expand this program nationwide so SNAP recipients across the country have the option to use online grocery delivery options and reduce their exposure to COVID-19,” they continued.

Last month, Kaine and Warner were among senators who pushed the USDA to waive a requirement that made it mandatory for children to physically accompany parents to receive reimbursable meals from school lunch i=distribution sites.


Sugary Drink Ban Tied to Health Improvements at Medical Center

Workers at the University of California, San Francisco, lost belly fat and showed metabolic benefits after a ban on sugary drinks went into effect.

In recent years, hospitals and medical centers across the country have stopped selling sugar-sweetened beverages in an effort to reduce obesity and diabetes.

Now a new study carried out at the University of California, San Francisco, has documented the health impact of a soda sales ban on its employees. Ten months after a sales ban went into effect, U.C.S.F. workers who tended to drink a lot of sugary beverages had cut their daily intake by about half. By the end of the study period, the group had, on average, reduced their waist sizes and belly fat, though they did not see any changes in their body mass index. Those who cut back on sugary beverages also tended to see improvements in insulin resistance, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.

The new research, published on Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, is the first peer-reviewed study to examine whether a workplace sales ban on sugary drinks could lead to reduced consumption of the beverages and improve employee health. At least nine other University of California campuses have said they are going to adopt similar initiatives to reduce sugary beverage sales and promote water consumption.

“This was an intervention that was easy to implement,” said Elissa Epel, an author of the study and director of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center at U.C.S.F. “It’s promising because it shows that an environmental change can help people over the long run, particularly those who are consuming large-amounts of sugary beverages, and possibly even lead to a reduction in their risk of cardiometabolic disease.”

In recent years, the link between sugar and obesity has drawn increasing scientific attention. Health authorities say that Americans have gotten fatter because they are consuming too many calories of all kinds. But some experts have singled out the role of added sugar consumption, which increased more than 30 percent between 1977 and 2010.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, sports drinks, fruit punches, sodas and other sweetened drinks are the single largest source of calories and added sugar in the American diet and “a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.” Large studies have linked them to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and premature death.

But critics point out that obesity rates have continued to rise even though consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in America has fallen in the last 16 years. About half of all adults consume sugary drinks on any given day, down from roughly 62 percent in 2003. Large beverage companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group are also offering many more drinks that have low or no calories. More than half of the beverages they sell today contain no sugar, said William Dermody, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association.

“We believe that the actions America’s leading beverage companies are taking to reduce sugar across their broad portfolio of products is a better and more effective way to help reduce the amount of sugar people get from beverages than unpopular bans,” he said.

Concerns about sugar have prompted at least 30 medical centers nationwide to stop selling sugary drinks, including the University of Michigan Health System, the Cleveland Clinic and the Baylor Health Care System. A similar movement took place in Britain, where in 2018 the National Health Service banned the sale of sugary beverages in hospitals across England.

Sugary drink sales bans have been somewhat less controversial than soda taxes, which have had mixed results. A study in Berkeley, Calif., found that sugary drink consumption fell and water consumption rose three years after the city implemented a soda tax. But another recent study found no significant overall declines in consumption in Philadelphia and Oakland in response to soda taxes there. In Philadelphia, the largest city with a soda tax, consumption of soda in particular did fall, and children who were heavy consumers of sugary beverages reported drinking less. But residents also reported buying more sugary beverages in neighboring towns that did not have soda taxes.

U.C.S.F., a health sciences center with more than 24,000 employees, implemented its sales ban in 2015. The university removed all sugar-sweetened beverages from cafeterias, food trucks and vending machines on its campus and installed more water stations. Fast food chains like Subway and Panda Express on its campus agreed to stop selling the beverages as well. One exception was made for 100 percent fruit juices, which contain natural sugars but have no sugar added to them. The university does not forbid anyone from bringing their own sugary beverages on campus, but they will find only bottled water, diet drinks, unsweetened teas and 100 percent fruit juices for sale.

To examine the impact of the sales ban, the researchers recruited a diverse group of 214 campus employees and then followed them, regularly taking blood samples and measuring things like their weight, soda intake and waist sizes. The study was funded by the University of California, U.C.S.F. and several philanthropic groups, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which has given money to support taxes on sugary beverages.

At the outset, the researchers focused on enrolling a lot of lower-income service workers because they tended to drink the most sugary beverages. On average, the employees recruited for the study drank the equivalent of three cans of soda per day. One group that had an especially high sugar intake was cafeteria workers, the result of an “open tap” policy that allowed them to drink freely from the dining hall soda machines, said Dr. Epel.

“While that sounds like it was a favor to them, it was actually detrimental to their health,” she said. “This subgroup of workers tended to have a heavier B.M.I.”

Dr. Epel and her colleagues split the workers into two groups. One was assigned to undergo a brief motivational intervention that was modeled on standard alcohol interventions: They met with a health educator who talked to them about the health effects of sugar and showed them how much they were ingesting each day using sugar cubes in a cup. The educator helped them set goals and occasionally called them to check in. The second group of workers served as controls.

After 10 months, the workers in both groups cut their intake of sugary drinks to 18 ounces a day, down from about 35 ounces. While there was no overall change in their B.M.I., they had reductions in two measures of abdominal fat, including their waist sizes, which shrank by an average of 2.1 centimeters. Dr. Epel said this was because sugar intake is strongly linked to belly fat. “The type of fat that we store in the liver and in the abdominal fat tissue is very sensitive to sugar,” she said.

The study found that overweight people who were assigned to the motivational sessions made the biggest changes. They had the greatest reductions in sugary beverage intake and larger improvements in their metabolic health.


Feds Shoot Down NYC Plan To Ban Food Stamp Use For Sugary Drinks

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A plan by New York City to combat obesity by restricting the purchase of sugary drinks with foods stamps would be too large and complex, federal officials said Friday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected a waiver request that would have allowed the city to implement the plan, which would have barred food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy sodas, teas, sports drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

The ban would have applied to any sweetened beverage that contains more than 10 calories per 8 ounces.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson announced in October that they would seek a waiver from the USDA to start up a temporary program that would be evaluated before becoming permanent.

In a statement released Friday, Bloomberg said his administration was disappointed by the USDA’s decision.

“We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country — and at little or no cost to taxpayers,” he said.

While sharing the goal of reducing obesity, an official with the nation’s food stamp program said in a letter Friday addressed to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance that the USDA had concerns about the plan’s “potential viability and effectiveness.”

Jessica Shahin, associate administrator of the program, wrote that the proposal lacked clear product eligibility guidelines, didn’t take into account the burden that might be placed on city food retailers and failed to put forward a credible design for evaluating the effect on obesity and health.

The food stamp program was launched in the 1960s and serves more than 40 million Americans each month.

The city has been actively working to shape diet choices by New Yorkers, including with a public advertising campaign called “Pouring on the Pounds” that targets the excessive consumption of sugary drinks by linking it to obesity and diabetes.

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


Improving SNAP Nutrition: Areas of Interest

So we want to improve SNAP nutrition—where can we begin? It isn’t as simple as just focusing on cost and health. Studies show that people will choose foods that contribute minimal nutritional value, even if those foods cost just a little bit more and are worse for your health in the long run. Eating habits are influenced by a wide variety of factors, including socio-economic and demographic characteristics, ethnic or familial traditions, convenience, advertising, and even biological triggers that make us more prone to eating foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. Thus any reforms made to the SNAP program have to take into account human behavior changes that seem rational may not actually be effective in increasing nutrition of SNAP clients.

First of all, a report commissioned by the USDA found that simply increasing the SNAP benefits of participants—under the assumption that having more money would allow SNAP users to purchase higher cost nutrient-dense foods—did not result in an increase in the consumption of these foods. Other purchases tend to take precedence over healthy eating, unless income increases significantly. Instead, behavioral economics indicates that financial incentives for healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are more effective. Giving SNAP participants coupons or money back when they purchase produce does result in higher consumption of fruits and vegetables but even then, SNAP participants do not consume as many fruits and vegetables as recommended by federal guidelines.

A more innovative and successful approach to reforming SNAP may involve changing how foods are purchased. SNAP users offered the option of pre-ordering food baskets (instead of taking trips to the grocery store) bought significantly more healthy foods and fewer unhealthy foods. Giving SNAP participants the option of choosing when their SNAP benefits arrive (e.g., monthly, biweekly, or weekly) can also increase the purchase of healthy foods, as perishable items can be purchased more easily. Studies show that providing SNAP clients with a “suggested” budget for their SNAP benefits (e.g., allocate $40 for leafy green vegetables) can help SNAP users spend their money more wisely. And distributing low-cost bowls and dishes with visual graphics that represent recommended portion size may be a more productive use of SNAP-Ed resources.

Guthrie, J. F., Lin, B.-H., Ver Ploeg, M., & Frazao, E. (2007). Can Food Stamps Do More to Improve Food Choices? U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Economic Information Bulletin 29-1. (USDA Report)

Ver Ploeg, M., L. & Ralston, K. (2008). Food Stamps and Obesity: What Do We Know? U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Economic Information Bulletin No. 34. (USDA Report)

Leung, C. W., & Villamor, E. (2011).Is Participation in Food and Income Assistance Programmes Associated with Obesity in California Adults? Results from a State-Wide Survey. Public Health Nutrition. 14(4): 645-52.

Food Research and Action Center. (2011) A Review of Strategies to Bolster SNAP’s Role in Improving Nutrition as well as Food Security. (Report)