When the federal food stamp program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program last year, 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 Web site went on: “SNAP helps low-income people and families buy the food they need for good health.”
Maine lawmakers now have the chance to turn this slogan into reality by disallowing the purchase of soda with food stamps. LD 752, sponsored by Rep. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough, would require the state Department of Health and Human Services to seek a waiver from the USDA to prohibit the use of food stamps to buy soft drinks. LD 753, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, goes a bit further. It would prohibit the use of SNAP benefits to buy food items that are subject to the state’s sales tax. Soft drinks, candy and prepared food are not considered “grocery staples” and are now taxed. Both bills could be improved by requiring that material educating food stamp recipients about healthful food and beverage choices should be included with the vouchers.
The USDA already promotes healthful eating with other food programs it administers. It bans the purchase of “foods of minimal nutritional value” in its school lunch program and the Women, Infants and Children program. WIC recipients are given vouchers for specific nutrient-rich foods. School subsidies require adherence to USDA nutrition standards. Soda, whether sweetened with sugar or artificially, as well as carbonated drinks enhanced with traces of vitamins or minerals, are excluded from both programs.
Extending this prohibition to the food stamp program makes sense.
Soda has no nutritional value and is clearly linked to tooth decay, diabetes and obesity, which in turn contributes to a host of health problems.
Drinking soda instead of water or low-fat milk is one of a handful of key causes identified in the sharp rise in childhood obesity rates. Once a child — or adult — struggles with obesity, a decline in health snowballs, harming the individual and costing society.
Critics of a proposed ban 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. 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. And food stamps can’t be used to pay for beer or wine.
As to whether a demonstrable good is achieved by such a prohibition, the cost of providing health care for the poor, which is borne by all taxpayers, has grown to unsustainable levels. Reasonable steps, such as getting soda off the list of food stamp foods, should be taken as one small way to ad-dress this problem.