Mayor Bloomberg failed in early March in his bid to keep people from slurping down more than 16 ounces of soda. But if Bloomberg lost, Big Soda didn’t win: The mayor got the whole world talking about how toxic it is to drink so much “sugary drink.” If Bloomberg really wants to do something about it, though, he’ll revive an effort he began more than two years ago: to get the Feds to stop paying for fizzy “food” that harms poor families.
In October 2010 Bloomberg said the government should stop allowing the 1.7 million New York City residents who received food-stamp benefits at the time to use that money to purchase soda and other “sugar sweetened drinks.” Citing high obesity rates and high soda consumption in poorer neighborhoods, he proposed a two-year program to see if eliminating government subsidy for unhealthy food made people healthier (meaning less government subsidy for health care, too).
The mayor needed—and received—the support of then Gov. David Paterson. The mayor also needed Washington’s okay. The federal government foots the bill for food stamps and determines which foods are eligible.
A year later President Obama’s Department of Agriculture had its answer: No. Soda lobbyists and groups that claim to speak for minorities had mobilized against it.
Conservatives should have been angry that taxpayers were spending 75–135 million dollars annually in New York City alone, in Bloomberg’s estimate, to pay for something that subverts the food-stamp mission. The benefit’s official name is the “supplemental nutrition assistance program.” Differently colored, differently flavored bottles and cans of corn syrup beverages are not nutritious.
Liberals should have been concerned that every dollar a mother spends on soda is a dollar she’s not spending on protein and calcium—particularly since it’s been trendy for high-profile progressives to spend a week living on food stamps to prove it’s hard. It’s more difficult if you’re spending some of that money on liquid sweetener.
But D.C.’s political class stayed silent.
The mayor should try again, using his cup-size loss as an argument in his favor. If the government can’t control portions, that’s all the more reason that the government must control what it does with taxpayer money.
The USDA left him an opening: In its rejection, the agency said that it was “concerned that … the proposed demonstration is too large and complex” and that “a change of this significance should be tested on the smallest scale.”
(Though that concern may have been reasonable, the USDA made a far more spurious objection, saying the proposal would be complicated for retailers. Retailers already separate the common grocery store items customers can and can’t buy using food stamps, with everything from diapers to hot chicken among the latter.)
The mayor could propose to start over testing a few ZIP codes with the highest obesity rates. Bloomberg could also support nascent interest in South Carolina, where officials in a state run by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley might propose a similar smaller project.
Bloomberg could go to the Feds armed with new data. Citing New York City’s attempt, Yale health policy researcher Tatiana Andreyeva and her colleagues recently compiled supermarket scanner data in New England to find out if food-stamp recipients purchased more sweetened beverages than other poor customers.
They did, according to a study the team put out in October. Beverages from cola to energy drinks to sweetened bottled coffee—399 ounces altogether—consumed, on average, 4.7 percent of the grocery bill of a family on SNAP benefits, or $9.34 a month. Food stamps paid for 72 percent of those purchases. Poor people who didn’t have SNAP benefits, by contrast, spent only 3 percent of their monthly grocery budget on such drinks.
That adds up to $1.7 to $2.1 billion nationwide, and even more in health care spending. “Our study proved it is a big problem,” Andreyeva says.
With another hundred thousand New Yorkers having joined the food-stamp rolls in the past two years even as the federal government is watching its spending more closely, Gov. Cuomo surely would support a revived attempt to make sure poor Americans are using taxpayer money to buy nutritious food, not calories that are empty except in cost.
Nicole Gelinas (@nicolegelinas on Twitter) is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.