N.Y. Seeks To Ban Food Stamps For Sugary Drinks

New York Gov. David Paterson and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are proposing that sweetened drinks be banned from foods allowed in the food stamp program. The proposal would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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New York City wants to ban the use of food stamps to buy sugary drinks. The proposal comes from the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and New York's governor, David Paterson.

They're seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, to add sugary drinks to the list of goods already prohibited. That list includes beer, pet food and cigarettes. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Efforts to ban buying junk food with food stamps have been rejected by the USDA in the past. Some advocates for the poor have opposed such restrictions, saying they single out those with low incomes and could prevent some people from seeking assistance.

New York is framing this narrower proposal as a temporary two-year ban so the effects can be studied. By doing this, it is hoping to get a different reaction from the USDA, which has not yet commented on the proposal.

At a news conference, Mayor Bloomberg said obesity is a simple issue. It's not like cancer, where we don't know the cure.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Independent, New York City): This we know how to cure: Stop eating extra calories.

ADLER: There are 1.7 million New York City food stamp users. The ban would affect drinks with 10 or more calories per eight ounces. Milk products and juices with no added sugar would not be included, and of course diet soda is fine.

Why sugary soft drinks, when food stamps still allow ice cream and candy? City officials contend low-income people are more likely to drink sugar-sweetened drinks and twice as likely to get type 2 diabetes as higher-income people.

In an opinion piece written by both the New York City and New York state health commissioners in today's New York Times, the commissioners not only supported the ban but argued that the tens of millions of dollars spent on sweet sodas through the food stamp system amounted to a federal subsidy to the sweetened beverage industry.

Mayor Bloomberg was on the same page when he said everyone has the right to drink a sweetened drink.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: The city should work with the state to keep the federal government from subsidizing a behavior which we know is detrimental to people's health.

ADLER: Out on the street, attitudes were mixed. Two painters on strike outside a building were on opposite sides of this issue. Peter Bottigliero said it's a slippery slope.

Mr. PETER BOTTIGLIERO: Where do you stop telling people what they can buy and what they can't buy with the food stamps? What if they determine you can't buy chicken thighs with them because they're too fatty, you can only buy the breast meat? It's kind of dicey.

ADLER: But Gregg Coords said If you are going to take a handout from the state, they should be allowed to tell you what to do with it.

Mr. GREGG COORDS: I have five kids, and if I'm going to give my kids money, I should have a say on what they're going to spend it on.

ADLER: The food stamp system already restricts some prepared foods but has never had a restriction on foods based on nutrition. The city's health department also has a funny new ad. A young man is seen gobbling down packet after packet of sugar. The ad only has music and sound effects but the words on the screen say: You never eat 16 packets of sugar. Why would you drink 16 packets of sugar? The amount often found in a soda.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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