THE BLOG
10/13/2010 02:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Problem With Banning Soda Purchases With Food Stamps

At first blush, the proposed ban in New York City on using food stamps to buy soda seemed like an excellent idea to me. I haven't had a soda in years. I haven't missed it either. While ice cream is the monkey on my back, for whatever reason, soda was a piece of cake (har!) to give up. Thanks to McDonald's introducing milk into their Happy Meals, my kids only drink soda at the odd birthday party or when Grandma sneaks it to them. Even my husband knows better than to bring soda into the house -- although I do know where his private stash of bottled rootbeer is. Soda is, and I'm guessing about 99% of people will agree with me, not healthy.

But as many pundits have questioned, "First trans fats, then soda -- what next?" What next, indeed. One man's healthy is another man's horrible. Once you get beyond the basic no-nos of Twinkies and diet Coke, the phrase "health food" becomes a Rorshach test of people's deepest beliefs. Don't believe me? Put a militant vegan and a paleo adherent in the same room. Very quickly there will be no more talk of actual foodstuffs but a whole lot of epithets, judgments, research studies and moralizing getting thrown around. I've seen some of the nicest, sweetest people completely lose their nut when their dietary habits are called into question.

A food philosophy -- diet is so gauche! -- is the new religion. Telling people how you found Jesus in the paint on your ceiling is the surest way to get yourself blackballed from all future parties but go on a 30-minute explanation of how you have been shooting up pregnant-lady urine to lose weight and everyone is all ears. Catechism over canapes is boring but critiquing what's in the canapes? It's practically an Olympic event.

So who gets to make the rules about what's healthy? Up until now, it's been a pretty personal decision. You decide for yourself and while you may evangelize, other people still have the right to ignore you and snarf their gas station food. But once you introduce legislation -- whether it be in the form of an added tax or a subsidy for certain farmers -- then somebody, somewhere is going to have to make the call on what's "good" and what's "bad." This could get as sticky as a push-pop on a hot day.

Besides, the obvious hot spots of meat and processed sugar, consider something as simple as the tomato. Totally good for you right? It has all that lycopene that's so good for your prostate! (Not that I have a prostate but I've heard they're handy.) And yet it's also classified as a nightshade which, along with potatoes, peppers and eggplants, are considered toxic by many health gurus. Toxic? Tomatoes?! While this is just one example of the confusion over the definition of "healthy," and before I scare you off spaghetti sauce for the rest of your life, check out this more nuanced discussion of the nightshade issue in this great article from Mark's Daily Apple -- many more abound.

I'm on the fence, however, regarding the current pending legislation proposed by Mayor Bloomberg which would forbid food stamp recipients from using the stamps to purchase soda and other sugary drinks. On one hand, soda is bad for you and lower-income people have a higher risk of obesity already. Not to mention that the idea is hardly novel: having worked a stint as a cashier in a grocery store, I'm well aware that food stamps already have some limitations -- you can't buy alcohol, tobacco or paper goods. Fair enough, right? But you also can't purchase "prepared food that is designed to be eaten in the store" -- so no green salad from the deli -- nor can you get vitamins, including pre-natals. On the other hand, soda is hardly harmful on the scale of alcohol or tobacco -- although I can feel some people's fingers itching to argue this point with me right now, bring it on in the comments! -- and if you're going to ban soda for it's high content of sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup -- the Freddie Kruger of sweeteners, that is, if he wore one of those corn hats you get at the State Fair -- then you probably ought to ban things like candy, barbecue sauce and -- oh, yes -- sports drinks. One serving of regular Gatorade has 29.5 grams of sugar.

In an online poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, out of 1200 respondents, 73.8% supported the pending ban. Apparently the will of the voting public has been spoken -- although, of course, that can't be said with certainty until an actual vote takes place. I wonder if it would be different though if the ban on sugary sodas were to be extended to all citizens, and not just those on the welfare end?

What's your take: should people on food stamps be banned from using them to buy soda? Would you support a tax on "unhealthy" foods? And the important question of the day: what do you call it? Soda, pop, soda pop, or Coke?