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Food Stamps Soda Ban: The Wrong Way to Fight Obesity

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Well-heeled conservatives and progressives always seem to unite on one issue: dictating that poor people should behave more virtuously than they themselves do.

Having failed to implement soda taxes in many states, which would only harm the non-wealthy, elites on both the Left and Right are seeking to ban the use of federal SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamp) benefits to purchase soda.

New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who not only serves soda at city events and provides unlimited free sodas to his company's employees, has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow the city to adopt such a ban.

This is just another example of the nation's "do as we say, not as we do" attitude towards poor people.

If it follows the law carefully, USDA should reject the request (as it has rejected similar requests in the past), because the Department has no authority to unilaterally ban foods, including soda, that are allowed in SNAP under laws previously enacted by Congress.

But since prominent leaders will keep pushing to ban either soda or all junk foods in SNAP, let's examine why such bans would be both unworkable and counter-productive.

For the record, let me first state that I believe Americans of all economic levels should drink less soda and eat less junk food, and that I think the food industry should be ashamed of itself for marketing to children and opposing clearer nutrition labeling. I also strongly support banning sodas and junk foods in public schools.

That being said, limiting the consumer choice of adults in SNAP is a horrible idea. With billions of dollars at stake, the battle to define what "junk" food is would be epic, with nutrition experts pitted against food-industry lobbyists, slugging it out one food item at a time. Should chocolate milk be banned? How about caramel apples or Fig Newtons? There would be protracted battles every year as new products are introduced and as the ingredients of existing products changed, requiring a massive government bureaucracy to continuously make such determinations.

Beyond sending the appalling message to low-income Americans that they are uniquely unsuited to make decisions about what is best for their own health, banning certain foods in the SNAP Program will fail to meet the anti-obesity objectives of proponents. There is no evidence that low-income people who receive SNAP benefits shop any less nutritiously than others with similar low incomes. The problem isn't that they make poor choices - the problem is that they can't afford to make better choices.

According to USDA, in 2009, 50 million Americans lived in households that were "food insecure," meaning they couldn't afford all the food their families needed. These households spent an average of $13 per person per week less on food that their food secure counterparts. That $13 often is the difference between being able to purchase food that is more nutritious but more expensive and food that is cheaper but less healthy.

The average SNAP allotment now equals only $1.48 per meal, and may soon be even lower if the recent cuts in the program are not reversed.

When I recently lived for five days on the allotment of food I could purchase under SNAP, I was unable to afford a single piece of fruit. I wanted to buy whole wheat pasta, but even on sale, at $1.50 a box, it was just too expensive, and I could only afford white pasta at 59 cents a box.

It is no wonder that obesity and hunger are flip sides of the same coin of food unaffordability, which explains why the urban neighborhoods and rural communities that have the highest levels of poverty and food insecurity also tend to have the highest rates of obesity.

Ban proponents assume, that if we just eliminate a few "bad foods" from our diets, we will all be healthier. That's bunk. Good nutrition and healthy weight are all about balance and adopting improved eating and exercise habits for a lifetime. Decades ago, many weight loss programs "banned" specific foods and gave participants strict guidelines for eating certain healthier (and often less tasty) foods. People on such programs would often lose weight rapidly, but then gain it all back just as quickly. In contrast, the most effective weight control programs today use point systems in which no food is bared, but in which, if participants consume a higher-calorie food at one meal, they simply have to make up for it by eating lower calorie foods at other meals. Such an approach respects actual human nature and thus allows people to gradually change their entire lifestyles, while still enjoying occasional guilty pleasures and improving eating habits.

A much better approach than taxing or banning so-called "bad" foods is doing far more to make healthier food affordable and physically available for struggling families. Government should help enable more farmers' markets, produce stands, and full service supermarkets to locate in low-income neighborhoods and ensure that they accept SNAP benefits. Congress and the President should also increase the purchasing power of SNAP, thereby giving low-income people what we all want: the ability to make their own smart choices and to improve their own lives.

Joel Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of the book All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?