Sodas, Food Stamps, and Obesity

Imagine a way that the government could reduce the level of obesity and it would cost nothing.  The government had that chance- and they blew it.

The US Department of Agriculture denied a request by New York State to run a pilot program where the city of New York would not allow people to purchase soda, or other sugar sweetened beverages, using food stamps. There are at least seven other states requesting such pilot programs.

It is not surprising that the opposition to this proposal came from the beverage industry who said, “It’s another attempt for government to tell people what they can and can’t drink. Singling out one specific item is discriminatory and unfair.”

Really? No one is saying they can’t drink soda – simply that the government won’t purchase items that are not in line with the intent of the food stamp program which is, “to provide for improved levels of nutrition among low-income people each month.”

The USDA said that city retailers would not be prepared to implement the new policy.  The food stamp program is run with a debit-style card. If a beneficiary is purchasing items from the grocery store not covered by food stamps, such as tobacco or alcohol, the cashier collects the money for those items after the food is deducted.

The original Food Stamp Act prohibited purchase of “soft drinks,” but that was changed because of regulatory issues-, which are now overcome thanks to technology. In fact, New York City officials stated that the “program’s electronic benefit card looks and acts like a credit or debit card” and that it only covers “some of the items in a typical s hopping cart, so program participants are already accustomed to supplementing their purchases with personal funds.”

The USDA also said “the proposal lacked rigorous methods to asses changes in sugar sweetened beverage consumption resulting from the new policy and the effects of those changes on obesity and health.”  A pilot program doesn’t have to prove that sugar sweetened beverages are not “food.” Even the original act prohibited these items.

The government purchases millions of gallons of sugar laden drinks for food stamp holders every day. Obesity is the number two killer in the United States – and by denying this simple pilot program are paying for obesity.  Preventing obesity costs nothing – paying for the effects of obesity costs everything.


US Department of Agriculture. The Food Stamp Act of 1964.

Jessica Shahan, Associate-Administrator, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, USDA, to Elizabeth Berlin, Executive Deputy Commissioner, New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. August 19, 2011.

Scott-Thomas C. Food stamp soda exemption in NYC is discriminatory, says industry. Food Navigator-USA. May 5, 2011.

JAMA, September 28, 2011 Vol 306, No. 12 page 1370-1371

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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Latest Comments

  1. factchecker says:

    Have to disagree, the policy needs to be under the microscope, its well intended but can turn out to be misleading
    under bloomy’s proposal a anti-oxidant green tea with a half a teaspoon of honey would be banned but a fruit juice consisting of little more than sugar and water which many juices are, containing 4x the sugar would be allowed,
    chocolate milkshakes,no problem.

    Singling out sugary drinks are wrong, after all its excess calories, why not single salty chinese food, white bread, certain granola bars which may or may not a gram of fiber even a taco, or mott’s apple sauce, or many cheeses, why ban the doritos but not the tortilla and cheese, nba players drink sugary drinks all the time, vitamin water has nutrients do we allow it, when most folks have enough.

    Sugar sweetened beverages are food, humans cannot survive with sugar, just like fat, allocation is the issue,
    a doctor for example can tell a patient that he or she needs more or less fat or sugar or fiber or salt with potassium, for instance a teenage male athlete or blue collar worker may need more calories than someone with a more sedentary lifestyle.

  2. thedoc says:

    This was a pilot program – and the policy can be put under a microscope. Nothing wrong with singling out one thing or another as time goes through it. It is what the public pays for and it is far better for people to drink water and have primary sources. The sugar beverages are food- but in excess, and there are better options. As a physician – never never never have I told a patient to have more soda – never. Nor do I know a respectable physician who has.

  3. Allison Martin says:

    “Obesity is the number two killer in the United States”

    You have been misinformed. The CDC made this claim in 2004. A scandal followed and the CDC later admitted that it’s methodology, mathematics and conclusions were wrong. The CDC officially stopped claiming this in 2005. The CDC no longer considers obesity a leading cause of death at all.

    You can find more information about the controversial discrepancy with the following link:,814%22+%22400,000%22

    CDC: Leading Causes of Death

  4. The Doc says:

    The causes of death do not relate to their origin. The apologists for obesity can, all they wish- claim their heart disease, increased incidence of cancer, stroke, diabetes, and cirrhosis are all not from the excess fat that they have– however, those of us who see inside and out of bodies really believe that obesity kills. How it kills is another matter. The apologists for obesity remind me of the apologists for smoking — no, it isn’t smoking that causes the number one death of Lung Cancer- must be something else.

  5. Lynn says:

    Obesity kills but we do see some elderly individuals who have been obese for much of their adult lives. Maybe they would have greater longevity, or better health if they are thinner but many obese people still live to their 70’s and 80’s. In some cases though, it cuts people’s life expectancy dramatically.
    I do wish, however, that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal would have been accepted. I don’t think that government entitlements should be for luxuries and non-essentials. If the WIC program can specify just exactly what it will pay for, why can’t food stamps?

  6. Lynn says:

    Mayor Bloomberg now has a new proposal for NY city restaurants, that sugary drinks and sodas over 16 oz cannot be sold. It won’t stop those who are intent on gaining weight from ordering several sodas but at least it is a gesture at saying that obesity is a health hazard and our government is paying the price for it. Eventually the widening of the American tush will cost us all in terms of wider seats and fewer passengers on planes, trains and boats.
    As far as food stamps go, the fifth birthday is a sad day for a child on WIC. That is the day he loses his “guarantee” of a glass of milk with his meal or snack and now his parents will substitute cola which is cheaper and bound to be a bigger hit with the child. Maybe Mayor Bloomberg could be the catalyst for a new system where a child stays on WIC until age 16 or 18 at which time we can say that his growth is completed and reduce or do away with food stamps that allow families to buy anything that they want. The whole point of WIC to begin with was to give mothers the incentive to provide quality foods to small children in order to foster brain development. It was thought that these low income mothers were not nutrition savvy on their own and would not automatically realize that their kids needed milk rather than soda.

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