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The Price of the Anti-Soda Campaign: Demonizing Obesity and Infantilizing the Poor

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New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's push to have the Agriculture Department approve a pilot program in which food stamps could not be used to purchase soda or other sugary beverages has nationwide implications. In their recent New York Times Op-Ed, "No Food Stamps for Soda," New York City health commissioner Thomas Farley and New York State health commissioner Richard F. Daines explain: "The city would bar the use of food stamps to buy beverages that contain more sugar than substance -- that is, beverages with low nutritional value that contain more than 10 calories per eight-ounce serving." They go on to rehearse familiar data regarding our nation's "obesity epidemic" and the rising cost of healthcare associated with it. Furthermore, they state that the numbers of overweight and obese adults and children in New York City are "especially high in low-income neighborhoods, where people are most likely to suffer the devastating health consequences." They conclude that this program would be an important step towards improving these individuals' diets while addressing spiraling healthcare costs. However, I would argue that a wiser course of action would be two pronged: first, fund programs to educate all consumers about the health consequences of their food choices and second, increase food stamps benefits so that consumers who rely on them could actually afford to choose healthier (and costlier) alternatives without depleting their very limited resources.

Beneath the argument outlined by Farley and Daine lay a number of serious problems. First, it relies upon the popular (and too often unchecked) trend of demonizing overweight and "obese" people by assuming that the size of their bodies is an indicator of uncontrollable appetites, irresponsible personal choices, and unhealthy lifestyles. Such thinking assumes that these individuals are incapable of taking care of themselves, so the State should do it for them. Second, while the class-based assumptions of such an argument often go unspoken, Farley and Daines are explicit when they connect the "obesity epidemic" with low-income neighborhoods. While this "epidemic" may be occurring across the national landscape, they place it squarely within New York City's (and presumably the rest of the nation's) low-income neighborhoods. Like laws requiring fast-food restaurants to post caloric information (laws that do not apply to high-end eateries whose gastronomic offerings may also tip the caloric scale), using food stamps to regulate individual behavior relies on an assumed link between "obesity" and poverty that must be interrogated. It also suggests that just as "obese" people are to be blamed for and ashamed of their bodies, people who depend on public support to feed themselves and their families must relinquish their right to make their own choices.

In their Op-Ed, Farley and Daines emphasize the fact that this program "would not reduce participants' food stamp benefits or their ability to feed their families a nutritionally adequate diet." In doing so, they fail to take seriously the economic realities that poor consumers face. While food stamp recipients would not see a reduction in their benefits, they would confront significantly less buying power given the price differential between soda (and other sweetened beverages) and other beverages, including milk and "natural" fruit juices. Because soda and other sugary beverages (often discounted with supermarket coupons) are significantly cheaper than milk and "natural" fruit juices, it is disingenuous to suggest that this program would have no impact on individuals and families that are struggling to maximize the buying power of their food stamps.

Finally, by focusing attention on individual behavior, this program reinforces one of the most problematic aspects of current debates around individual and national health. In demonizing the choices that individuals make, this program deflects attention away from the need to interrogate the systemic reasons why the most inexpensive foods tend to be the least healthy. Rather than addressing the reasons why mass-produced, processed foods are the least expensive and most readily available, this campaign (like so many others), ignores subsidies, incentives, and other collusions between government and big business in favor of blaming "obese" and low-income consumers who are faced with the consequences of these arrangements. In his New York Times Op-Ed about the Farm Bill, Michael Pollan asserts that, "Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring." In addition, he heralds the public health community for "rais[ing] its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water." Given these realities, we must ask ourselves one basic question: Does a government that subsidizes the production of high-fructose corn syrup really have the moral authority to condemn those who consume it?