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USDA rejects NYC food stamps soda ban

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 23-Aug-2011

Related topics: Regulation, The obesity problem, Soda tax

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials have rejected a proposal from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would have banned sugary drinks from the list of products that can be bought with food stamps.

One in seven, or 48m, Americans currently receive food stamps, officially known as the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the number of Americans who benefit through the program has grown rapidly as the economy has struggled. The use of food stamps is already prohibited for some grocery store items, such as alcohol, nutritional supplements and prepared foods.

Mayor Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson made the proposal to ban the use of food stamps for buying soda in October last year, arguing that sugar-sweetened beverages provided no nutritional value; obesity rates have ballooned, particularly among New York City’s poorest households; Americans consumed an average of 200 to 300 more calories a day than 30 years ago; and nearly half of those extra calories came from sugary drinks. They suggested that a ban on the purchase of sugary drinks could be put in place for an initial two-year period, to evaluate whether the move would affect obesity rates among food stamp users.

However, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a letter released Friday that the proposal would be too complex to implement and questioned its viability and effectiveness.

“We are confident that we can solve the problem of obesity and promote good nutrition and health for all Americans and stand ready to work with New York City to achieve these goals,” Vilsack said.

Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement that his administration was disappointed with the proposal’s rejection.

“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,” Bloomberg said.

“We’re disappointed that the Federal Government didn’t agree and sorry that families and children may suffer from their unwillingness to explore our proposal. New York City will continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that affect New Yorkers and all Americans.”

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that about six percent of SNAP benefits are spent on sugar-sweetened beverages nationwide – and about $75m to $135m annually in New York City.

The American Beverage Association, which represents the interests of beverage manufacturers including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple, had accused New York City officials of unfair discrimination in the proposal to prevent food stamp benefits from being used to purchase sugary beverages.