Food Chemical News: USDA should study the effects of cutting soda from SNAP, one lawmaker says
By Margarita Raycheva
Faso told Food Chemical News on Feb. 21 that he will push for the study in the coming months in the House Agriculture Committee, which last week debated the pros and cons of potentially banning the purchase of certain unhealthy foods from the SNAP program.
Though many committee members and expert witnesses at the hearing seemed to agree that such measures would be costly, unfair and too complex to enforce, Faso said he is confident that a “carefully designed” study could help legislators see whether such a restriction could be beneficial for promoting healthier habits for SNAP households and particularly the children raised in those households.
“I’d like to see an examination of whether a control group which would not be able to purchase soda with SNAP benefits, would in turn choose healthier alternatives, if they were so encouraged,” Faso said.
“I have to discuss this with the committee, but I would like to see such a study initiated, perhaps through legislation or perhaps we could just simply encourage the USDA to conduct it. I don’t know whether it needs legislation or not or whether the department has within its capacity to initiate directly,” he said. “I do think that given the amount of money that we are spending on SNAP benefits on soda, and given the lack of nutritional value that soda has, I do think such a study would be warranted.”
Faso first brought up the idea for the study at a Feb. 16, as the House Agriculture Committee weighed pros and cons on potentially restricting SNAP purchases. Committee members heard from five expert witnesses and discussed a November 2016 report from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which estimated that in 2011, 20 cents of every SNAP dollar was spent on sweetened drinks, deserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.
The study found that in 2011 “food purchases, consumption patterns and dietary outcomes” among SNAP participants and higher income households were “more similar than different,” but SNAP participants did spend more (9.3%) on soda, than non-SNAP households (7.1%).
According to the study, SNAP participants spend more than $6 billion on sweetened beverages and, according to experts who testified at the hearing, more than a half of that was on purchasing soda.
Faso expressed concern about those statistics at the hearing, particularly since soda has no nutritional value. He also asked expert witnesses at the hearing to estimate what would be a representative sample for a potential study on a SNAP soda ban.
“When we were kids, the only time when we could have soda, was when it was somebody’s birthday,” Faso said at the hearing. “And when I see (…) perhaps $3 billion of taxpayer dollars being spent on soda, which has no nutritional value, in a program that is called supplemental nutrition assistance, something is wrong.”
Experts who testified at the hearing however, cautioned that a study on a SNAP soda ban has to be done very carefully in order to realistically measure the potential effects of such a ban.
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said such a study needs to measure “consumption, not just compliance.” Schanzenbach testified that adding restrictions on the SNAP program would undermine the effectiveness and efficiency of the program. She also cautioned that past research suggested that “some people substitute away from soda and sometimes what they replace it with isn’t much better.”
Along with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, four of the five expert witnesses before the committee testified against the possibility of restricting SNAP purchases.
Food Marketing Institute (FMI) President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said that placing restrictions on products would be a logistical nightmare as hundreds of thousands of products each year would have to be defined and reclassified.
“It could probably be done, but the question is at what cost,” she said.
House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, (D-Minn.) said there is no silver bullet that can improve the SNAP program’s efficiency.
“Looking specifically at SNAP food choice, it would seem pretty straightforward that we not allow SNAP dollars to be spent on junk food. But how do you define junk food?” he asked.
There have been attempts to restrict SNAP purchases in the past, Peterson said, who pointed to his own Minnesota where lawmakers in 2004 tried to restrict candy from the SNAP program. Lawmakers, however, defined candy as anything that did not contain wheat, resulting in a ban that allowed SNAP beneficiaries to purchase a Kit Kat bar but not a Hershey bar, he said.
“Going down this route could open a real can of worms. Grocery stores have no interest being the food police and USDA has been resistant to that effort as well,” Peterson said.
Industry voices opposition to a potential SNAP soda ban
Beverage industry representatives also believe there are better ways to promote healthy lifestyles than introducing a soda ban for SNAP beneficiaries.
“Families who have fallen on tough times should not be discriminated against because they need temporary help affording their groceries,” said Lauren Kane, spokesperson for the American Beverage Association (ABA). “The discussion taking place in this country about creating jobs is a more productive way to help families get back on their feet, and stigmatizing them by banning them from certain aisles of the grocery store will not address the real issue.”
Kane also argued that allowing government to designate foods as “good” or “bad” would create “a food code more complicated and arbitrary than the tax code.”
“That would put us on a slippery slope of government intrusion into many decisions that have been always left to the individual to decide,” she stated.
Instead, beverage companies are trying to improve public health through education and promoting the benefits of cutting sugar consumption in the diet of Americans. The association promotes efforts by companies, such as Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper and Pepsi to reduce sugar and calories from beverages. The group’s latest initiative – the Balance Calories Initiative – is aimed at encouraging sustainable change in communities across the country. Under that effort, the group has launched an advertising campaign to remind consumers about smaller drink sizes and new, low- or no sugar drinks on the market.
The association’s Calories Count Beverage Vending Program, on the other hand, offers consumers clear calorie information, encourages lower-calorie beverage choices and reminds them that calories count in all the choices they make. As part of the program, which is now available nationwide, consumers will see Calories Count signs on vending machines that include one of the following messages: “Check Then Choose” or “Try A Low-Calorie Beverage.” The selection buttons will also include calorie labels that show calorie counts per beverage container.
"Together, we are driving a reduction in the sugar and calories consumed from beverages across America – engaging with prominent public health and community organizations in this effort,” Kane said. “This means doing the hard work of changing behavior in communities with some of the highest obesity rates in the country, including the Mississippi Delta and rural Alabama. We’re providing the new beverage options, information and encouragement to help people cut back on calories and sugar.”
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