Recipients of food stamps spend roughly $4 billion a year on soda, which in Maine translates to about $20 million a year, a significant amount of wasted resources. Reducing the consumption of soda subsidized by the food stamp program is critical because of the limited dollars low-income families have to purchase nutritious foods and the extensive evidence showing that soda consumption can lead to negative health outcomes. More so, the food stamp program was specifically defined and created to provide families with nutritious foods, which soda clearly is not.
In 2008, I proposed that Maine add soda to the list of products that could not be purchased with food stamps. The process would have required Maine’s government to submit a request for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds and regulates the state-administered food stamp program.
In 2008, the Maine Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee was convinced that it should not proceed further after an official of the Baldacci administration advised it that the USDA likely would not have given Maine a waiver for this proposal.
At the time, this seemed an accurate appraisal. It also was a major public health failure for Maine.
Federal policy often changes because of substantial pressure from states to change policy that doesn’t work. Maine had the opportunity two years ago to step up and address the issue of poor nutrition among a substantial portion of its population, but instead it retreated.
Since that public policy disappointment, I have had the pleasure of being invited to write two opinion pieces on soda and food stamps for national publications. One was written collaboratively with Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest for the American Journal of Public Health, the other for a recent issue of
Congressional Quarterly Researcher.
Additionally, I had the opportunity this summer to express my concerns regarding soda and food stamps at a policy meeting in Washington, D.C. After that presentation, health officials from New York City who had heard my comments contacted me and expressed their desire to propose a waiver similar to the one I proposed in Maine in 2008.
I was very pleased recently when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intent to seek a waiver very similar to the one I had requested. Mayor Bloomberg and his staff are very aware that their request may get rejected by the USDA, but they should be applauded for having the courage to seek a reduction in soda consumption.
However, if approved, this measure could be the first step in reforming a nutrition program that should aim to provide those in need with nutritious foods.
Maine’s next governor should follow the lead of Mayor Bloomberg, and request a waiver from the USDA to add soda to the list of products that cannot be purchased with food stamps.
Jonathan Shenkin is a pediatric dentist in Augusta and on the faculty of Health Policy and Health Services Research at Boston University.