New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently went before the United States Department of Agriculture to request federal permission to disallow the use of food stamps for purchasing soda and other sugary drinks.
Bloomberg made the request as part of a larger initiative to reduce obesity in the city, as the city rates of child-hood obesity have reached nearly 40 percent. The New York Times reports that Bloomberg’s proposal was received “cautiously.” Other responses around the country, voiced in editorials and news papers from coast to coast, have leaned farther towards outright condemnation.
“Mayor Bloomberg’s recent proposal to ban food stamp users from buying sodas is an overreach” says The Oregonian Editorial Board, “it would peer over the shoulder and meddle – punitively – in the grocery carts of struggling Americans.”
Since any government intrusion Big Brother style should rightly be questioned, responses similar to this are understandable.
The Oregonian’s statement, however, includes a slight but crucial inaccuracy that in fact changes the whole debate: the proposal is not to “ban food stamp users from buying sodas” but instead to prohibit the purchase of soda with food stamps. Food stamp recipients will completely retain, 100%, their God given American right to buy soda.
It’s just that the government isn’t going to buy it for them.
An analogy more appropriate than the government peering into the grocery cart of Americans would be of the government standing at the register looking at the receipt, which it already does. There are in fact all kinds of consumable and non-consumable grocery store items that can’t be purchased with food stamps like alcohol, tobacco, hot food, greeting cards, t-shirts, plants, rolling pins, magazines, and thousands of other items.
Why is this? Simply stated, because these items are not food.
This is not to say that the government is not allowing food stamp recipients from buying greeting cards, booze, or cooking utensils, just that food stamps are not the appropriate funds. Food stamps are intended to help “struggling Americans” eat, and allowing that money to be spent on anything that does not meet this goal is in fact impeding that goal. These other items can always be purchased with money received from other government programs, like welfare etc, but just not food stamps because, to risk being repetitive, they are not food.
In this sense, it is curious that soda was ever an item that could be purchased with food stamps. Is anybody arguing that soda is necessary or even contributing to nutritional needs? Not likely. But surely all would acknowledge the converse: soda does plenty of harm.
Just look at America’s obesity problem, which is of course how this question even came into the sphere of public debate: The Oregonian reports alarming statistics for New Yorkers, stating that almost 40 percent of public school kids are obese. Buying diet soda is not a solution.
Editorial writers are slinging stats back and forth like meatballs in a cafeteria food fight, but one point that is noticeably missing from the Pro-soda crowd is any good reason that soda can be purchased with food stamps in the first place.
This debate brings to mind the woman that famously stood up at a town hall meeting in 2009 during the raging health care debate and demanded that the government stay out of her social security. Like this woman few people enjoy government intrusion, but the simple fact is that when Uncle Sam is footing the bill, he needs to know what he is paying for.