USDA Urged to Allow Pilot Programs Aimed at Excluding Soda from SNAP Purchases

Groups Want Shift Toward Healthier Foods and Beverages

August 1, 2013

State and local governments should be able to test pilot programs designed to promote healthier food and beverage purchases by participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to health experts. Fifty-four national and local health groups, as well as 19 prominent physicians and nutrition experts, today called on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to allow such pilot programs, which might include curbs on purchases of soda and other sugar drinks or unhealthful foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture denied a 2004 request from the state of Minnesota and a 2011 request from New York City to conduct test programs that would have excluded sugar drinks from SNAP. At that time, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest estimated that some $4 billion a year in SNAP benefits were spent on soda and other sugar drinks annually. In June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and 17 other mayors urged members of Congress to allow such pilot programs. While Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) filed an amendment to the farm bill that would have compelled USDA to approve two such programs, the groups and experts writing Vilsack today contended that the agency could allow them under its existing authority.

"USDA should grant these 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 groups and experts wrote. "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."

Besides CSPI, groups on the letter to Vilsack include the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Heart Association, American Medical Association, California Center for Public Health Advocacy, National WIC Association, Partnership for Prevention, and Shape Up America. Physicians and nutrition experts on the letter to Vilsack include Lawrence J. Appel of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, James Krieger from the Seattle and King County public health department, Barry M. Popkin from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mary Story from the University of Minnesota, and Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Most Americans' diets, including the diets of low-income folks served by SNAP, are overflowing with soft drinks and woefully deficient in whole grains and produce," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "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. It just doesn't make sense to have the federal government subsidize the purchase of product that causes so much disease."

"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," wrote Senators Coburn and Harkin to Vilsack in July.


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