Should the Government Force Food-Stamp Users to Eat Better?

New research shows that a soda ban would reduce obesity and type 2 diabetes.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 17: Lori Middleton drinks a large soda on October 17, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. New York's Court of Appeal has agreed to hear New York City's appeal of a lower court ruling that blocked Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaign to stop fast food restaurants from selling super-sized, sugary drinks. In a recent ruling, which dealt a blow to the campaign to improve the health of New Yorkers, the lower court said the city Board of Health exceeded its authority by putting a 16-ounce size limit on high-calorie sodas and soft drinks. 
National Journal
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Clara Ritger
June 2, 2014, 12:05 p.m.

Food-stamp users would be much health­i­er if they were for­bid­den to spend fed­er­al dol­lars on soda, but sub­sid­iz­ing part of the cost of their fruits and ve­get­ables would not have a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on obesity and dia­betes, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port from Stan­ford Uni­versity.

The Stan­ford re­search­ers are the first to eval­u­ate the im­pact these gov­ern­ment ac­tions would have on the 46 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans who par­ti­cip­ate in the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, known as SNAP. Pub­lic health of­fi­cials are search­ing for ways to im­prove the nu­tri­tion of SNAP par­ti­cipants, who have high­er rates of obesity and type 2 dia­betes than Amer­ic­ans of the same in­come level who aren’t in the pro­gram.

Ac­cord­ing to the study, “SNAP par­ti­cipants con­sume al­most twice as many cal­or­ies from sug­ar-sweetened bever­ages as they do from ve­get­ables and fruit.” There’s a grow­ing body of evid­ence that li­quid cal­or­ies can do more dam­age to the body than reg­u­lar junk food, and Basu said that’s a key reas­on why ban­ning the pur­chase of sug­ar-sweetened bever­ages would have a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on the health of SNAP users.

“We ob­served that the re­stric­tion from pur­chas­ing sug­ary bever­ages could pre­vent 400,000 cases of obesity and 250,000 cases of type 2 dia­betes over the next dec­ade,” said lead re­search­er San­jay Basu, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or of medi­cine at Stan­ford Uni­versity.

Mean­while, giv­ing SNAP par­ti­cipants 30 cents back for every dol­lar they spend on fruits and ve­get­ables is not ex­pec­ted to have any im­pact on obesity and dia­betes rates. But Basu said their study found that the sub­sidy could still double the num­ber of SNAP par­ti­cipants who meet the nu­tri­tion­al guidelines for fruit and ve­get­able in­take, en­sur­ing that they are eat­ing the re­com­men­ded vit­am­ins and nu­tri­ents, a not­able health im­prove­ment among the pop­u­la­tion. This pro­duce pro­gram is already be­ing tested in a pi­lot pro­ject at the U.S. De­part­ment of Ag­ri­cul­ture.

While the find­ings are im­port­ant con­sid­er­a­tions for poli­cy­makers look­ing to im­prove the SNAP pro­gram, they’re not likely to be im­ple­men­ted any time soon. Just this year Con­gress cut $8.7 bil­lion from the pro­gram in the farm bill.

Basu says im­ple­ment­a­tion isn’t the next step any­way.

“We need to have USDA au­thor­iz­a­tion to do a pi­lot study,” Basu said. “Be­fore we change any­thing for 46 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans, we need to do a ran­dom­ized tri­al to see if this has the ex­pec­ted be­ne­fit.”

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