Food Stamp soda exemption in NYC is discriminatory, says industry

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags New york city Michael bloomberg

The beverage industry has accused New York City officials of unfair discrimination in a proposal to prevent food stamp benefits from being used to purchase sugary beverages.

The use of food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is already prohibited for some grocery store items, such as alcohol, nutritional supplements and prepared foods. New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson put forward the proposal to add sugar-sweetened beverages to the list of items prohibited on the program in October, in an effort to tackle growing rates of obesity and diabetes.

They claim that sugar-sweetened beverages are “the largest single contributor to the obesity epidemic”​ and have asked for a two-year trial period to test their plan.

However, the American Beverage Association (ABA), which represents the interests of beverage manufacturers including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple, says that people should be allowed to make their own decisions about what they eat and drink.

ABA director of communications Chris Gindlesperger told FoodNavigator-USA: “It’s another attempt for government to tell people what they can and can’t drink. Singling out one specific item is discriminatory and unfair. Participants in the SNAP program can decide what they want to buy for themselves and their families.”

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 number of Americans who benefit through the program has grown rapidly as the economy has struggled, with one in seven, or 44 million people, now receiving food stamps.

Food policy and nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote in a recent blog post​ that she has long been uncomfortable with the idea of the soda ban”​ but has come to support it.

“Evidence is strong that sugary drinks predispose to obesity, and obesity rates are higher among low-income households,”​ she wrote. “…We need to focus on finding ways to make healthful foods more affordable and accessible to low-income families – doubling the value of SNAP benefits when used for fruits and vegetables, for example, or promoting incentives to move grocery stores, and community gardens into inner-city areas.”

But Gindlesperger said that the beverage industry backs nutrition education and, through its recently launched ‘Clear on Calories’ program, is providing calorie information boldly on the front of beverage containers.

“After Mayor Bloomberg and other government officials start singling out specific items it’s a slippery slope,” ​he said. “What’s next?”

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