Last week’s decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to deny New York City’s request to ban soda purchases in the city’s Food Stamp Program (now known as SNAP) may have been a blessing in disguise.
Supporters of the ban decried a supposed lost opportunity to reduce obesity, and opponents, myself included, hailed the decision as a wise rejection of a counter-productive attempt to create a double-standard for low-income consumers that would ultimately do little to improve public health. Yet I am hopeful that the decision will prompt both sides to re-set the table on the obesity debate in order to develop a more comprehensive, mutually agreeable plan for enabling Americans in poverty to obtain more nutritious food.
While supporters of the ban often implied that opponents were somehow pro-soda, nothing could be further from the truth. For the record, the organization I manage receives no money from soda companies. Even though I believe that all Americans, including low-income ones, should be able to occasionally choose a sweetened beverage or have other snack foods as a small part of an overall balanced diet, there is no question that Americans of all incomes drink far too much soda. The over-consumption of such foods is surely one of many contributors to the nation’s high obesity, heart disease, and diabetes rates and the accompanying skyrocketing health care costs.
In fact, I hold special contempt for food industry efforts that target its unhealthiest products to low-income neighborhoods, children, and communities of color.
The reason many opposed the SNAP soda ban is that we thought it was a based on a false diagnosis of the problem which resulted in a misguided proposed treatment. Supporters of the ban, as well as the numerous (mostly unsuccessful) proposals to levy additional taxes on certain foods, seem to think the root of the problem is that low-income people always choose to eat junk food because of ignorance or apathy, thereby requiring coercive measures.
In reality, the main reason that low-income people don’t eat more healthfully is that nutritious food often doesn’t exist in their neighborhoods, and when it does, it is frequently too expensive or too time-consuming to obtain and prepare. When those barriers are overcome, low-income people flock to consume better food. For instance, in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, sponsored by the organization I manage, low-income consumers in six city neighborhoods line up for weekly shares of fresh produce from regional farmers that are subsidized with both private donations and SNAP benefits.
Now that it’s clear that neither a SNAP soda ban nor new food taxes are likely, I hope both sides of the debate can agree upon the following concrete ways to combat both obesity and hunger:
• Accelerate efforts to increase the availability of healthier food choices in low-income neighborhoods. The Obama Administration, as well as many state and city governments, have worked with the private and nonprofit sectors in recent years to provide incentives to open more supermarkets, CSAs, and farmers’ markets in underserved rural and urban communities. New York City has also launched a pioneering program to place “Green Cart” fresh produce vendors in food deserts. Such efforts should be accelerated and expanded, and should ensure that all vendors accept SNAP and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits.
• Increase the purchasing power of low-income Americans for nutritious foods. SNAP, on average, provides only a little more than $33 per person per week. According to USDA, food secure American families spend $46 per week per person on food, $13 more than families who are food insecure or hungry. Fully 50 million Americans live in such food insecure and hungry households, but only 46 million now receive SNAP. Thus, the simplest way to increase healthier food purchasing is to increase the average monthly SNAP allotment and expand the number of low-income people eligible. We should also expand pilot efforts to increase the purchasing power of SNAP benefits for fresh produce, and pay for these efforts through slashing agribusiness corporate welfare payments that subsidize less healthy foods.
• Given that low-income people are particularly strapped for time (often working multiple jobs, traveling by public transportation, and lacking domestic help) healthier food should be made more convenient. For example, New York City should end its prohibition on Green Carts selling pre-packaged salads or cut-up fruit. Fast food restaurants should be further encouraged to provide more nutritious choices.
Such efforts would have a far greater anti-obesity impact – and far-greater long-term savings on health care spending – than merely trying to limit the purchase of one type of food. Surely all sides of the debate can agree on this plan to save both money and lives.
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