Soda and food stamps

New York Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to get federal permission to block food stamp recipients from using them to buy soda was all over the news today.

Many people have complained that it’s “Big Brother” government telling you what you can can’t eat, and the start of a slippery slope towards them legislating what is and isn’t allowed. However, I don’t find this to be a credible argument.

Mayor Bloomberg is not attempting to block the sales of pop all together, just say that you can’t buy it on the government’s dime.  When you accept the government’s assistance, you do so knowing there are rules attached. After all, the government is the one providing the food stamps and just like with any of their other programs, they determine the guidelines and can administer the program as they see fit.

In fact, the government already limits other items from being purchased with food stamps, such as alcohol, household products, vitamins, cigarettes and other non-food things.  And there’s certainly precedent for limiting specific food choices as well. If you look at state sponsored WIC programs (a program that provides food and supplies for women, infants and children under five), there are stringent regulations surrounding what can be purchased.  Many states only allow recipients to buy certain types of items, insisting on 100% fruit juice instead of “orange drink” for example.

Food stamps are not, as one correspondent on NPR alleged, an income supplement.  It does exactly what it says on the tin!  It’s  officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and it’s a program meant to help people buy nutritious food.  No matter what Pepsi or Coke says, soda is not a food, whether nutritious or not (and not surprisingly, the answer is a firm no).

I also don’t think it’s fair to say disallowing soda will be a huge inconvenience and ruin shopping efficiency.  It’s no more inconvenient than disallowing toilet paper, shampoo or any other non-food item you might also buy in a grocery store.  The food stamp program does not provide a high enough amount for it to cover all of a household’s grocery expenses anyway, and it’s not intended to. Splitting the ticket is common. Families will have to use at least some money coming from other sources in order to buy many of their grocery items. Adding soda to that list does not seem to be that much of a stretch. And why can’t stores police soda in the same way they do other disallowed items?

I think it only makes sense to revisit government programs from time to time and see what can be done to make them better.  With a record number of people on food stamps due to the poor economy, pursuing any benefit or efficiency that can be gained seems like a good idea.