Across the country, 40 million people rely on food stamps to feed their families. But if a new proposal goes through, New Yorkers on food stamps would not be allowed to spend them on sugar-sweetened drinks.
The ban would only apply to food stamp recipients in New York City, or 1.7 million people. If approved, they would be prohibited from buying drinks that contain more than 10 calories per 8 ounces, except for milk products, milk substitutes like soy and rice milk and fruit juices without added sugar.
It's a new proposal being weighed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson and the latest effort to combat the obesity epidemic. Bloomberg and Paterson plan to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the nation's food stamp program, to add sugary drinks to the list of items New York City residents receiving assistance would not be able to buy. Items like alcohol, cigarettes, pet food, vitamins and household goods are currently prohibited. If approved, it would be the first time an item would be banned from the federal program based solely on nutritional value.
"This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment," Bloomberg said.
This isn't the first time this idea has been thrown around. In 2008, lawmakers in Maine looked into it. But the plan quickly drew criticism from advocates for the poor who argued it unfairly singled out low-income people and risked scaring off potential needy recipients.
Years before in 2004, the USDA rejected Minnesota's plan to ban junk food, including soda and candy, from food stamp purchases, saying it would violate the Food Stamp Act's definition of what is food and could create "confusion and embarrassment" at the register.
This year, Governor Paterson lead a failed effort to add a penny-per-once tax on soda and sugary drinks.
Not surprisingly, this story is already generating a lot of talk. Some who receive assistance say, while officials have good intentions, the proposal goes too far. One reader writes online, "stigmatizing poor people is NOT the answer to this. Smart public policy that goes after the source is a much better answer."
Yet another praises the idea saying, "Thank you, Mayor Bloomberg, for making a good policy decision. Anyone can still buy soda, but not on the taxpayer's dime."
New York has enacted several controversial proposals recently to combat the obesity problem It became the first city in the country to ban trans-fats at restaurants. It's also forced chain restaurants to start posting calorie information on menus.
Officials say there's good reason now to target food stamp recipients. In 2009, New Yorkers received $2.7 billion in food stamp benefits. Of that, city leaders say, they spent $75 million to $135 million on sugary drinks. More than half of New York City adults are overweight or obese, along with nearly 40 percent of public school students in kindergarten through 8th grade.
Food stamp recipients would still be able to purchase some unhealthy products like potato chips, ice cream and candy. Officials say they're targeting soda and sugary drinks because they're the largest contributor to obesity and lower-income residents are most likely to drink one or more sugar-sweetened drinks a day.
"We continue to see a dramatic rise in obesity among children, especially in low-income communities," state Department of Health Commissioner Richard Daines said. "This initiative targets a major public health threat - the high consumption of sugary beverages - which have little to no nutritional value."
For now, this is just a proposal and the USDA plans to consider it.
Would it help cut down on obesity? Is government overstepping its boundaries or ensuring people who use food stamps make healthy choices? Is it fair to target a specific segment of the population? Are there certain things you think food stamp recipients should be prohibited from buying? Leave your comments below.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.