Limiting what food stamps can buy: Singling out low-income individuals or helping fight the battle against obesity?

By: Rebecca Krieger

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced his controversial proposal to limit food-stamp recipients from using the funds to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages.[1] In an effort to fight the battle of obesity among Americans, the Mayor has requested that the United States Department of Agriculture approve a two-year experimental program barring the city’s food stamp recipients from spending the funds on beverages with added sugar.[2] This ban would be the first time food-stamp recipients would be limited from purchasing an item based solely on its nutritional value.[3]

The food stamps program, set forth in the Food Stamp Act of 1964, was enacted to prevent hunger and improve social conditions for citizens with low-incomes.[4] Citing the purpose of the legislation, Congress stated “[t]o alleviate such hunger and malnutrition, a supplemental nutrition assistance program is herein authorized which will permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet through normal channels of trade by increasing food purchasing power for all eligible households who apply for participation.”[5] Furthermore, food is currently defined as “any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption.”[6] The act limited the manner by which funds could be allocated, in an effort to bestow independent buying power upon those who could could not afford any food.[7] Arguably, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal should require Congress to change laws governing the food-stamp program and redefine what qualifies as “food.” Without such change by Congress, this New York specific law might create confusion among vendors, purchasers, as well as confusion for people crossing state borders.

Most significantly, Mayor Bloomberg has failed to cite specific statistics linking higher rates of obesity to those receiving food-stamps or those who purchase sugary drinks.  His proposal is singles out low-income recipients for a study that would benefit the entire nation.  While it may be true that poor households spend their food budget on items with low nutritional value, the ban fails to address  wealthier Americans who consume diets with similarly low nutritional value.  Even if low-income individuals are likely to be more obese, there are Americans with higher-incomes that are just as overweight and unhealthy.  Obesity is a nationwide problem that can be remedied in less discriminating ways. Some less discriminatory options include, enacting a nationwide change to the Food Stamps Act, increasing education on the importance of purchasing foods with nutritional value, or increasing taxes on sugary beverages.

While there is no denying that the rate of obesity in this country is increasing and that there is a dire need for improved nutrition among Americans, this ban is not the answer. This ban is discriminatory.  It singles out a group of Americans because of their income and seeks to micro-manage how their source of income may be spent.


[1] Anemona Hartcollis, Plan to Ban Food Stamps for Sodas Has Hurdles, N.Y. Times, Oct. 7, 2010,  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/nyregion/08stamps.html?_r=1.
[2] Id.
[3] See Id.
[4] 7 U.S.C.A § 2014(5) (West 2008).
[5] 7 U.S.C.A. § 2011 (West 2008).
[6] 7 U.S.C.A § 2012(k) (West 2008).
[7] Id.

2 thoughts on “Limiting what food stamps can buy: Singling out low-income individuals or helping fight the battle against obesity?

  1. While I agree that if the Mayor wants to avoid discrimination he should provide support for the proposition that low-income families are obese, but I think arguing that he needs to provide support that eating sugary foods increases obesity is unnecessary because its not a matter of opinion anymore and several outlets have offered substantial evidence as the damaging effects of a high-sugar diet. See e.g. http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20060810/sugary-drinks-linked-to-obesity-rise; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14247852/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/.

    So while I think everyone can agree that discrimination is bad, is placing limitations on the food (healthy limitations at that) a person receiving government support can buy really wrong? I would also be curios to read your thoughts on the San Francisco ban on happy meals. (http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/02/business/la-fi-happy-meals-20101103).

  2. there is no eveidence that people on assistance are any fatter than the peole who eat fast food everyday for their lunch at work everyday its ridiculous

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