New York City is no stranger to food controversies. Especially when these controversies are concerning (what is perceived as) government meddling in how and what people eat. There was the trans fat ban, then the proposed sodium ban, and before that there was the compulsory calorie confessions from chain restaurants throughout the city (note: all of these efforts have come during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration). Needless to say, these controversies are extremely contentious largely because New Yorkers (like most hot-blooded Americans these days) tend to dislike being told that their unhealthy and unsustainable diets are not such a good thing. The latest campaign to clean up the eating habits (or in this case, the drinking habits) of New Yorkers holds a different tactic, and will likely yield another brand of controversy altogether.
Mayor Bloomberg, along with Governor Patterson unveiled an ambitious initiative last week to exclude sugar-sweetened beverages, the largest single contributor to the obesity epidemic, from the list of allowable purchases through the nationís food stamp program. This would effectively maintain the current government-funded food stamp benefits for NYC residents already receiving assistance, but the change would be that these recipients would no longer be able to purchase sugary-sweet sodas with these food stamps, as they were able to do once before.
While this may seem punishing, and somewhat arbitrary to some, there is good reason to bring the hammer down on the soda can with these perceived” fat taxes.” According to an NPR report on the subject, more than 1.7 million people in New York City receive food stamps. Data from the Agriculture Department, which administers the food assistance program, show that sugary drinks account for about 6 percent of food stamp use across the country. In New York City that would translate to $75 million or more of subsidized sugary drinks a year.
There obviously seems to be a correlation between consumption and corpulence. But as much as this approach makes sense on paper, is it the most sensible strategy toward battling obesity and promoting good eating habits? These sorts of “sin taxes” are often viewed as overly moral and far too dogmatic to actually take. It also runs the risk of being overly paternal and dictatorial in tone (“You can’t have your dessert until you eat all of your growing food”), which may well result in feelings of persecution and objectification by the underprivileged. Maybe a better tact would be making the inherent value of the food stamps (or more commonly known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) to be greater when used in the purchase of healthier whole foods, rather than sodas and junk foods. Some critics of this proposed plan see it as a potential PR disaster, as well as a logistical nightmare waiting to happen, and are more eager to propose alternate options, like a calorie cap.
Regardless of whether or not this proposal takes and effectively restricts the flow of calorie-rich sodas to food stamp recipients, there remains a serious and significant health and obesity crisis in this country. Do you feel these sort of government sponsored measures, making soda an out of pocket expense, do much to address the problem? Is this just infantilizing a portion of the population? Or should we resort to a “by any means” necessary line of attack when contending with our national heath and obesity crisis?