The Obama administration recently turned down New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the use of food stamps for soda purchases. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the proposal was too complicated.
But as a nutrition researcher, I believe the mayor was on the right track -- and I hope he fights for his proposal. Cities across the country should consider this approach, too. The need is clear: Nearly 60 percent of New York City adults and 40 percent of its children are overweight, and similar statistics plague other cities.
Preventing soda purchases with food stamps would be a good step in the battle against obesity. And I suggest expanding the ban to add other unhealthful foods contributing to the obesity epidemic.
As it stands, the food stamp program wastes billions of dollars subsidizing purchases of unhealthy foods that raise the risk of life-threatening medical problems. Taxpayers foot the bill at the point of purchase -- and often get dinged again when it's time to treat heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related public health problems.
We need a fresh approach. I propose a new plan that creates a simple, short list of eligible, obesity-fighting staples, including fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains, that would be covered 100 percent by food stamps, the program now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The list would not include unhealthy foods like sugary sodas, high-fat dairy foods, and processed meats.
Our proposal would prioritize simple, but nutritious, staples that are low in fat, sugar, and sodium, and would help reverse America's worsening epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. It would cut out the foods that are clearly contributing to the obesity crisis.
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year, I looked at food trends over the last century, based on data maintained by the USDA from 1909 to 2007. In 2007, the average American ate 75 pounds more meat and 30 pounds more cheese than we did a century earlier. That's every person every year -- and that's why about two-thirds of American adults are now overweight or obese.
Some have argued that it is wrong to limit what economically disadvantaged people can purchase with food stamps. I take a different view. It is demeaning to assume that economically disadvantaged people feel a need for junk food. They, like everyone else, recognize that unhealthful foods are creating a serious problem and we do not need free candy and sodas dangled in front of us.
The food stamp program is intended as a supplement -- to be used in addition to a person's own resources. So food stamp users are free to buy Mountain Dew or whatever they wish to with their own funds; there is no need for food stamps to be used for luxuries or junk food.
The government doesn't need to be footing the bill for the very foods that are driving the obesity epidemic. The food stamps program has become a perk for food manufacturers who find that it supports a growing market for candy, soda, fatty cheese, and processed meats.
Spending government funds to pay for junk food may be popular with the junk-food industry, but it is bad for citizens, taxpayers, and everyone else. The obesity epidemic will never end until people matter more than food-industry profits.
Follow Neal Barnard, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrNealBarnard