Restrict food stamps for junk food? Health organizations urge USDA to test limits

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Should food stamp recipients be allowed to use their benefits to purchase junk food?

A coalition of health advocacy organizations and experts thinks the Agriculture Department should allow regions to test that question.

Fifty-four groups and 19 experts are calling on the USDA to allow state and local governments to try pilot programs that would restrict the purchase of soda and unhealthy foods with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp, benefits.

“USDA should approve demonstration projects to determine whether modifications of the use of SNAP benefits would impact and optimize purchases, and ultimately consumption patterns, among low-income populations,” the coalition, which includes the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and American Heart Association, wrote in their letter to Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack.

“Granting that permission also would provide USDA with data it has long needed and help resolve the controversy over whether changes to the allowable SNAP purchases are warranted,” they added.

According to CSPI, with so many Americans struggling to find a healthy food balance, particularly low income Americans, restricting the purchase of detrimental food with federal money makes sense.

“In the same way that SNAP funds are not allowed to be spent on tobacco or alcohol, the government should not pour potentially health-saving SNAP dollars into the coffers of Coke and Pepsi,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement. “It just doesn’t make sense to have the federal government subsidize the purchase of product that causes so much disease.”

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin recently filed an amendment to the farm bill that would have required the USDA carry out two pilot programs testing the efficacy of such restrictions in states willing to participate. The amendment was never brought up for a vote.

Last month, Coburn and Harkin appealed to the USDA to use their existing authority move forward with the ideas contained in the amendment.

“Given both the individual and societal impacts associated with poor diet, as well as the disproportionate effect on low-income persons, we believe it is prudent for the Department of Agriculture to seek to obtain information about the effects of restricting purchases of certain foods or beverages with SNAP benefits,” Coburn and Harkin wrote in a letter to Vilsack on July 15.

Vilsack has yet to respond to the senators’ query, according to a Coburn spokesman.

Thursday’s coalition letter continues in the spirit of Coburn and Harkin’s request.

In June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and 17 other mayors called for tests on restricting the purchase of sugary beverages.

“It is time to test and evaluate approaches limiting SNAP’s subsidization of products, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, that are contributing to obesity,” the mayors wrote to congressional leaders.

The USDA has blocked previous attempts by states and localities to institute restrictions on SNAP purchases, notably testing a ban on SNAP candy and soda purchases in Minnesota in 2004 and testing a sugary drink SNAP ban in New York City in 2011.

Jeff Cronin, CSPI spokesman, told The Daily Caller that while the organization is not sure what to expect in the way of action from USDA, there is momentum toward the end goal.

“[I]t’s clear that policymakers at all levels of government are increasingly aware of sugary drinks’ role in promoting obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.  And there is some momentum in the right direction.  USDA has pretty much banished non-diet soda from all schools, thanks to the standards they developed per the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act,” Cronin wrote in an email to TheDC, adding that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) employs nutrition standards.

In response to the letter, a USDA spokesperson asserted USDA’s commitment to healthy choices but did not address the calls for junk food and sugary-beverage restricting pilot programs.

“USDA is committed to empowering low-income families to make healthier food choices by providing science-based information and advice, while expanding the availability of healthy food through its nutrition assistance programs,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to TheDC.

“We continue to welcome potential partnerships to design, implement, and evaluate anti-obesity interventions targeting consumption and associated behaviors while encouraging healthy choices,” the spokesperson added. “USDA stands ready to work with States on ways to promote good nutrition and health for all Americans.”

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