Four billion dollars. That’s how much Americans spend in food stamp dollars each year to buy sugar-sweetened, carbonated soft drinks. In Maine, it translates to about $20 million a year.
Imagine, says Maine pediatric dentist and public health advocate Jonathan Shenkin, how much healthful food could be purchased with those dollars.
“If you gave that money to the food banks, they’d bend over backward to get nutritious food for their clients,” he said.
Shenkin, who practices in Augusta and serves as president of the Maine Dental Association, is the co-author, along with Michael Jacobson of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, of an editorial that will appear in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The column already is posted online at http://ajph.aphapublications.org/first_look.shtml.
The two public health advocates argue that sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda have no nutritional value and no place in the taxpayer-funded food stamp market basket. They say the purchase of low-nutrient, high-calorie junk food in general should be actively discouraged within the program, and that federal policies should be developed to encourage the purchase of more healthful foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“Overconsumption of excessively sweetened foods and beverages increases the risk of obesity, and people living in poverty are more likely to consume these nutrient-poor foods,” the authors state, citing a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “This is one reason why low-income consumers suffer disproportionately from such health disparities as higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and dental disease.”
But they stop short of calling for an out-and-out ban on soda and junk food in the food stamp program, recommending instead a variety of educational and financial incentives aimed at guiding consumers toward wiser food purchases.
The food stamp program recently was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP is expected to provide $69 billion in benefits to 43 million Americans in 2011.
In Maine, about 236,000 individual Mainers receive SNAP benefits each month. Last month, those benefits were worth a total of about $30.5 million.
SNAP dollars may be spent on essentially any food or beverage at participating retail stores, except for hot, ready-to-eat foods and alcoholic beverages. Tobacco, paper products and dietary supplements are not allowed, either. But soda, candy, fatty snack foods, sugary breakfast cereals, desserts and other culprits in the obesity epidemic are allowed.
It might seem as though the simplest thing is to eliminate soda and junk food from the list of allowable foods in SNAP, but Shenkin and Jacobson say that approach won’t find the political traction it needs to get through a fractious and divided Congress.
Food manufacturers, grocery chains, and the beverage industry would “flex their political muscle” to prevent such a change, the authors say. And antipoverty organizations have traditionally maintained that limiting food choice in the food stamp program is “patronizing and discriminatory.”
Shenkin and Jacobson recommend less direct measures, including a 30-cent rebate on every food stamp dollar spent on healthful foods; educational programs that guide consumers away from junk foods; clearer, “front-of-the-package” labeling of nutritional content; and an all-consumers tax on soda and snack foods to discour-age purchases and fund education and other initiatives.
All these measures would face political challenges, but Jacobson said Tuesday that the climate in Washington is “excellent” for developing public policies that work against obesity. First lady Michelle Obama is spearheading a national campaign against childhood obesity, he said, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made the issue a priority.
“Things are moving in the right direction, and the Obama administration would like to see this continue,” he said.
The American Beverage Association, which in 2008 mounted a vigorous and successful campaign to repeal Maine’s beverage tax, declined on Tuesday to comment on the AJPH editorial. The nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, which advocates for policies that counteract hunger in the United States, did not respond to a request for comment by the close of business Tuesday, nor did the nonprofit Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates on behalf of low-income Maine residents.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the annual amount in food stamp dollars spent on soda in Maine.