October 8, 2010

NY: Take Sugary Drinks Off Food Stamp List

Governor David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have proposed that New Yorkers in the food stamps program should not be allowed to spend them on sugar-sweetened drinks.

Bloomberg and Paterson said Thursday that they are trying to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add sugary drinks to the list of prohibited goods for city residents receiving assistance.

This would be the first time an item would be banned from the federal program based solely on nutritional value.

In 2008, the idea was suggested in Maine, where it found criticism from advocates for the poor who argued it unfairly singled out low-income people and risked scaring off potential needy recipients.

The USDA rejected Minnesota's plan in 2004 to ban junk food from food stamp purchases.  The proposal said it would violate the Food Stamp Act's definition of what is food and could create "confusion and embarrassment" at the register.

Some New Yorkers who receive the assistance said they felt the proposal went too far.

"I can see the sodas, but suppose somebody's in bad shape and they just want juice?" Harold Vilson, a 56-year-old Brooklyn resident who said he uses food stamps, told The Associated Press.

"If people want to buy that stuff, they should be able to. If it's not an illegal product, they should be able to buy what they want to buy."

The food stamp system serves about 40 million Americans each month and does not currently restrict any foods based on nutrition.

Food stamps cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes or items like pet food, vitamins or household goods.

The city and state proposal would apply only to food stamp recipients in New York City, which is 1.7 million of the city's 8 million residents.

"This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment," said a statement from Bloomberg, who also has outlawed trans-fats in restaurant food and has forced chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.

The ban would apply to any beverage that contains over 10 calories per 8 ounces, except for milk products, milk substitutes like soy milk and rice milk, and fruit juices without added sugar. 

A 20-ounce sugar-sweetened drink can contain the equivalent of as many as 16 packets of sugar.

Over half of New York City residents are overweight or obese. 

City officials said lower-income residents are most likely to drink one or more sugar-sweetened drinks each day.

USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee said Thursday that the agency received the proposal and will consider it.


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