Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
For boldly suggesting food assistance money in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly food stamps) exclude soda, NYC’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, will surely be a target if not for sticks and stones, then at least insults and epithets. Prominent, if mild, on the list will be: “nanny” and “food police.”
By expressing my public support for Mayor Bloomberg’s position- and yes, that’s what I’m doing- I am a similar target myself. Rather than preaching to the proverbial choir, it is to the hurlers of such slurs I address myself. Because I want to make sure my list of labels- and the mayor’s for that matter- include one that may be omitted: American tax payer.
Shocking as it may be against the backdrop of divisive, politically-charged rhetoric that prevails these days, those of us who think the government can and should do a thing or two actually care how it gets done. I work as hard as anyone else for the money I send to Uncle Sam, and I care how it gets spent.
The question here is how anyone ever thought that taking tax dollars intended to help support the nutrition needs of a struggling family vulnerable to outright hunger, and applying them to the purchase of a nutritionally destitute, nominally addictive mix of sugar, colorings, and chemicals in a cup- was remotely reasonable in the first place.
But let’s start at the beginning, with the SNAP program itself. For it may well be that those whose ire Mayor Bloomberg and I invite object to SNAP in the first place.
SNAP is intended to avoid right here at home the kind of overt malnutrition that appalls us in images beamed via satellite from such places as Sudan. Any claim the United States has to either might, or right, would surely be squandered if it stood by with its considerable resources and watched its own citizens starve. Nor is SNAP a handout for those disinclined to work; it is a hand up for our neighbors knocked down by circumstance. The ranks of SNAP participants have swelled to an all-time high courtesy of a global recession for which those neighbors are not responsible.
Having mentioned the Sudan, I would be remiss not to note something else. We live in a world that produces –at least for now- more than enough food for everyone. Yet, 20% of the global population is overweight or obese, and more than 10% of us are starving. This egregious misallocation of sustenance is a demonstration of human avarice, inequity, and ineptitude that redounds to our collective shame.
Now back to soda. The justification for food assistance is that a hungry family needs food. I trust we can all agree that there would be cause for protest if money or vouchers to help sustain a ‘hungry’ household were spent on tanning salons, tobacco, or tequila- right? Soda is not tobacco- but it is corrosive if not abruptly toxic to health, and devoid of any nutritional value food assistance is intended to procure.
Further, the ranks of SNAP participants overlap substantially with the ranks enrolled in Medicaid, government health insurance for the financially challenged. Should government food subsidies be applied to purchases strongly associated with bad health outcomes, for which additional government expenditures will be required? No private business would function so dysfunctionally, and this seems to bespeak the very kind of government inefficiency to which the shrink-the-government contingent justifiably objects.
Maybe, to the extent possible, the government should mind its own business. But almost any way the soda bubbles burst, this is their business. And that of anyone paying taxes.
Of course, the Mayor’s proposal does raise a challenge the American Beverage Association will quickly voice: is soda demonstrably less ‘food’ than, say, Fluffernutter; artificially colored hearts, moons, stars, and clovers; or fruit roll-ups that have, in fact, never met a fruit?
This anticipated protest is partly legitimate. Better than just precluding soda would be a system that links the purchasing power of food assistance dollars to nutritional quality, from soup to nuts. Colleagues and I have means to do just that, and are working on it.
But in the interim, soda is a very good place to start. If my neighbors are thirsty, they can likely find water. If they are hungry, I would gladly ante up to help buy them lunch. I hope they would do the same for me. But I trust they would sensibly stop short of subsidizing my visits to a tanning salon.
No food police should be required to determine that food assistance dollars be limited to…food. Only in a modern world habituated to glow-in-the-dark comestibles could soda have ever qualified in the first place.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com