On first glance, it’s easy to get upset with new research that shows food stamps subsidize $2.1 billion worth of sugary drink purchases–mainly soda–per year. And indeed, it’s fairly depressing that such a large amount of taxpayer money goes towards something that, as the researchers put it, seems “misaligned with the goals of helping low-income families live active, healthy lives.” But tempting as it is to just impose further restrictions on Food Stamp purchases, I’m not so sure it would really solve any problems. If we really want to help poor Americans make healthier choices, why not just make it easier for them to do so?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pays out $80 billion to around 46 million low-income Americans. While $2.1 billion isn’t a massive number if you consider the sum spending (it’s only about 2.5%), it’s not a small amount of soda…or taxpayer-funded profit for soft drink companies.
But as much as it bothers me to think of my taxes lining the pockets of Coca Cola and Pepsi Co., I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong for someone to enjoy the occasional sugary drink–even if they’re poor.
I have no problem with Bloomberg’s big soda ban, or imposing sin-taxes on sugary drinks to deter (ALL) consumers from mindlessly blowing their money on something that’s slowly killing them. But restricting the diets of specific income groups just gets into an uncomfortable grey area…and more importantly, it doesn’t really help anyone make better choices.
If we really want low-income families to get better nutrition, we need to make healthy food options competitive with unhealthy ones. In the big picture, this means radically changing the way our government subsidizes food so that fresh produce and whole foods are more affordable than Big Macs. On a small scale, this means making sure that healthy options are actually available to families in low-income neighborhoods, and encouraging people to make better choices through health care provides, educational programs, and community centers.
There are also plenty of ways outside of SNAP that we can provide healthy meals for low-income families. One is through schools: Fighting for healthier school lunches is probably one of the most beneficial things we can do for young kids who rely on government assistance for their food. Another is to volunteer your time or money to organizations that DO focus on providing healthier options.
Restricting someone’s choices at the grocery store is hardly a
Photo: flickr user jpockele