Last month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought permission from the federal government to prohibit the purchase of soda and other sugary drinks with food stamps. Maine began down this road last year, but turned back in the face of criticism.
It is a journey worth beginning again. For Republicans eager to reform the state’s assistance programs, this is one small step to start that work.
When the federal food stamp program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained the change in nomenclature this way: “The new name reflects our focus on nutrition and putting healthy food within reach for low-income households.”
The department website went on: “SNAP helps low-income people and families buy the food they need for good health.”
Soda doesn’t fit that definition. That’s why Mayor Bloomberg sent a request to the USDA in October seeking permission to prohibit the city’s nearly 2 million food stamp recipients from buying soda with their SNAP funds for two years. Cities and states need waivers to deviate from USDA rules for the SNAP program. The request is part of the mayor’s aggressive quest to reduce obesity in the city. He also has banned trans fats in restaurants and requires restaurants to show calorie counts on their menus.
Nationally, about 16 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese, which is defined as having a body mass index in the 95th percentile or higher. That is 10 percent higher than in 2003. A 2007 Maine Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 13 percent of the state’s high school students were obese.
Last year, a bill requiring the state Department of Health and Human Services to seek a waiver like New York City’s to ban soda purchases with food stamps was rejected by Maine lawmakers. So was a bill that sought to ban the purchase of soda and candy with food stamps.
Critics of such proposals argue that assistance should come with no strings attached and that such bans stigmatize those who need assistance. But government-funded assistance programs have always made distinctions relating to standards.
Food stamps can’t be used to pay for beer or wine. Participants in the Women, Infants and Children program can use their vouchers only for specific nutrient-rich foods. “Foods of minimal nutritional value” can’t be part of the school lunch program. Both programs also are administered by the USDA.
The occupants of subsidized housing must comply with a series of rules that don’t apply to nonsubsidized renters. College students with drug convictions are ineligible for federal aid.
Financing the purchase of unhealthful foods and drinks with taxpayer dollars doesn’t make sense. Barring such purchases will help the program fulfill its mission of helping low-income families buy nutritious food.