Should Food Stamps Pay To Indulge A Sweet Tooth?

Millions of Americans rely on food stamps to keep from going hungry. They can also use them to buy sugary drinks. Some groups, including the National Center for Public Policy Research, say that's not right. Host Michel Martin discusses this with the Center's Justin Danhof, and University of Illinois Professor Craig Gundersen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Next, we want to talk about a debate going on that could affect the 47 million Americans who now receive food stamps. That program is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Throughout the years, there's always been debate about what people should be able to buy with those benefits. But now, as more attention has turned to the country's growing problem with excess weight, some activists are wondering why taxpayer money should be used for soda or other sweetened drinks.

One of the groups raising questions is the conservative think tank the National Center for Public Policy Research. The Center's Justin Danhof is with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JUSTIN DANHOF: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is, University of Illinois Professor Craig Gundersen. He has written extensively about SNAP, and he disagrees that there should be restrictions. And he's with us from NPR member station WILL, that's in Urbana, Illinois. Thank you, professor, for joining us as well.

CRAIG GUNDERSEN: Thank you for the opportunity.

MARTIN: So Justin Danhof, why did you start thinking about the whole question of soda and food stamps or nutrition benefits? I mean soda is now permitted. There are some things that are not permitted. Like, for example, you can't buy tobacco products with SNAP benefits. But that's not food.

DANHOF: Sure. So, well, you also can't buy alcohol. What got us looking into this, initially, was the federalism issue. So in the state of Florida, in the state of New York, there have been efforts to limit the ability for SNAP recipients to use these taxpayer funds towards sugary beverages, like soda. And these efforts have been fought by the Coca-Colas of the world and the Pepsis of the world, and also Kraft of the world. And it got us to thinking, why should taxpayers support some of the largest corporations in the world providing sugary beverages? Between Pepsi and Coke in 2012, they had over $100 billion in revenues. What we've got an issue is, we've got one of the most powerful governments in the history of the world, the United States federal government, teaming up with powerful corporations to lobby and continue this ever-growing program.

If you want to take your own money and buy Coke, I have no problem with that. I'm one of the biggest free-market activists you're going to find. That's why I think Mayor Bloomberg's efforts in New York City to limit soda size was wrong because he was limiting that for everybody. If I have my own money, fine. This is my tax dollar money.

MARTIN: OK. There's a lot going on there, so let's try to piece a little bit of that, let's try to unpack a little bit of that. But Craig Gundersen, why don't you just talk a little bit about the nutritional aspect of this. I don't think anybody disagrees that there really is no nutritional benefit in sweetened drinks. So on that basis, does Mr. Danhof have a point?

GUNDERSEN: I have to respectfully disagree on this point. I should note that this is built as a soda band, but it really bands a wide array of different drinks. For example, V8 would be banned from purchases. Gatorade would be banned, Lipton Green Tea. There's a whole wide array of beverages that would be banned - including some that we think are healthy. This is a bad idea for five main reasons. The first one is, is we know that SNAP is an enormously successful program - at leads to reductions in food insecurity, in leads to reductions in poverty in the United States. And, moreover, there's lots of evidence that it leads to reductions in obesity.

The second reason is is this would hurt small business owners across the United States. It's not cheap to reconfigure things to such that some goods are accepted by SNAP, other goods are not. And this will create longer lines in these stores and raise food prices, which tends to hurt smaller businesses more. The third reason I'm against this is it creates a bureaucratic nightmare. The last thing we need is more government intervention in terms of what we can eat and what we can't eat. And where does it stop? Do we start banning white bread, which really has very little nutritional content? If vegetarians took over in the USDA, would we then ban meat from being consumed? There's a whole wide array of other things that could be banned along with products like V8 and Gatorade.

MARTIN: The fact is there is already a long list of things that's banned. You can't buy beer, wine, other alcohol. You can't buy soap or household supplies. You can even buy vitamins or medicines. You can't even buy hot food. And, you know, I think some people find that, kind of, questionable. Like, for example, I mean how many of us hasn't stopped at the store and bought a rotisserie chicken on the way home because we're hungry and tired and would like to get dinner on the table quickly? So there's already a long list of things that are not permitted to be bought with SNAP benefits. So why would it be so much more challenging to say there's something that - I mean do you disagree that soda has no nutritional benefit?

GUNDERSEN: I don't disagree with this. But if I could first turn to my final two points regarding why I think this is a bad idea, is the first one is that it's patronizing and offensive to poor people. When I used to work for the federal government, the USDA, they didn't give me a paycheck and then say this is what you can spend your money on. Or when people get Social Security, nobody says here's how you can spend your money. The fifth reason is this will cause declines in the wellbeing of poor people in the United States. So fewer you will want to participate in the program because it's patronizing, stigmatizing to have all these restrictions, it's more of a hassle for them. That means that hunger rates will rise in the United States, it means poverty rates will rise in the United States. And, as I mentioned before, obesity rates are likely to rise in the United States due to these policies.

MARTIN: Could you answer my question though, do you really think that not buying a soda is going to discourage that many people from participating in the program? And do you really agree that taxpayer funds should be used to buy something that has no nutritional benefit?

GUNDERSEN: My main problem is, is we're singling out sugar sweetened beverages when there's many other things that also are not nutritionally that healthy, that along the same lines, if we're going to put forth this argument is there's a wide array of things that also should be banned. And when you get down to it is that some point in the supermarket you're only dealing with very few things. So I'm in favor of more limited government in terms of dictating what we can and cannot purchase with this. And, as I said, this goes beyond just banning soda. It bans many other products as well.

MARTIN: OK. Mr. Danhof, what about Mr. Gundersen's point, that this is really patronizing and that it's a little hypocritical for people who are conservative would generally believe in a limited government imprint in people's lives are advancing an argument like this?

DANHOF: I take the point. I disagree in that what's the new stigma? What's the added stigma? You already can't buy a laundry list of items. All we're saying is a very logical point that the sugary beverage of soda, which has zero nutritional value, should be added to the list. Folks shouldn't be consuming this on a regular basis. And so they should use the SNAP items for nutritional items that they have discretionary money, fine, use it for a luxury item. But there's so many recipients of SNAP already that run out in the third week of the month, and to spend it on high-priced things like soda, that's just wasting the limited resources we already give them. And I want the record, 47.7 million Americans on food stamps, to work to get off. This is already government intrusion in their lives. This is just changing the way the government is intruding in their lives.

MARTIN: I have to ask. There are lots of people who receive federal benefits in order to subsidize what we consider a minimally decent standard of living. And among those people are people who receive benefits for disability, under Social Security, people who receive veterans' benefits. But you're not attaching that kind of question to people who receive those kinds of benefits, telling them what they can and cannot buy. So why not?

DANHOF: The point of veterans' benefits isn't the same point as SNAP benefits. The SNAP program is meant to provide nutrition to families who cannot otherwise afford nutritional meals for their family from month to month. We are just saying take something off the table that has no nutritional aspect. Week can save the taxpayer some money. The soda industry can afford this change. And we...

MARTIN: But why not ice cream? Why not say you can't buy ice cream; you can't buy cookies; you can't buy a birthday cake? Why not say that?

DANHOF: In a perfect world maybe we would say that. But right now, when we have Coke and Pepsi spending millions to lobby to keep these billions, I want to focus on those two companies.

MARTIN: Justin Danhof is director of the Free Enterprise Project at the National Center for Public Policy Research, that's a policy and resource organization - a conservative one - in the Washington, D.C. area. Craig Gundersen is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois. His particular interest is food insecurity and food assistance programs.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DANHOF: Thank you, Michel.

GUNDERSEN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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