May 2nd, 2011

Soft Drink Industry Fights Proposed Food Stamp Ban

The New York Times

To Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, it seemed like a sensible way to attack a major public health problem. To the soft drink industry, giant food companies, makers of snacks and candy, supermarkets, and antihunger groups, it seemed like an attack at the grocery checkout counter.

The mayor wants to reduce obesity and diabetes by banning the use of food stamps to buy “sugar-sweetened beverages” in New York City.

Food and beverage lobbyists see the mayor’s plan as a well-intentioned but misguided and paternalistic effort. They say it would create a logistical bottleneck at checkout counters and stigmatize poor people using food stamps.

They also fear that restrictions on soft drinks would set a precedent for the government to distinguish between good and bad foods and to ban the use of food stamps for other products — an issue sure to come up next year in the Congressional debate on a new farm bill.

“Once you start going into grocery carts, deciding what people can or cannot buy, where do you stop?” asked Kevin W. Keane, senior vice president of the American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

New York officials estimate that $75 million to $135 million in food stamp benefits are spent on sugar-sweetened beverages in the city each year. Such beverages, they say, are the single largest contributor to the obesity epidemic.

“This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment,” Mr. Bloomberg said in seeking federal approval. City officials noted that federal policy already bans the sale of soft drinks in school lunch programs across the country.

The mayor’s proposal would go further by banning the use of food stamps to buy carbonated and noncarbonated beverages that are sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup and have more than 10 calories per eight-ounce serving.

Food stamp benefits are paid for entirely by the federal government, and the city is seeking permission from the Agriculture Department to test its proposal in a two-year project. Because the proposal would define “food” more narrowly than federal law and regulations, food industry groups have unleashed a barrage against it.

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