If obesity is a crisis that threatens national security, why does the federal government expect taxpayers to subsidize junk food and soda?
The Obama Administration, through First Lady Obama's Let's Move! initiative, is running a national, multi-agency campaign against obesity, calling it an "epidemic" and a "crisis." But there are limits to what federal officials consider viable options for battling the disease-causing bulge. After ten months of deliberation, the US Department of Agriculture on Friday rejected the request of New York's Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for a waiver that would allow the city to prohibit the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages by those who receive federal Food Stamps, otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
In October of 2010, Bloomberg and then-Governor David Paterson requested that USDA give permission for a two-year pilot program in which sugary drinks, including sodas, sweetened juices, sports drinks and teas, be removed from the list of allowed Food Stamp purchases, arguing that these contribute to a high rate of obesity and diabetes in low-income populations. The project in de-junking the Food Stamp program was designed to see if New York could move the needle on diet-related disease. No can do, said the USDA.
The White House says that one in three children in America is overweight or obese. Only one US state, Colorado, currently has an adult obesity rate under 20%. Numerous studies on the causal link between obesity and sugary drinks, especially soda, have found that regular consumption increases the likelihood of obesity. "Today, kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time," notes the Let's Move! blog, when explaining how Americans have hit what the Administration identifies as epidemic rates of obesity.
But a letter denying New York's proposal, written by Jessica Shahin, an associate administrator in the Agriculture Department, said USDA has serious concerns about the potential viability and impact of banning Food Stamp users from purchasing sugary beverages.
“After carefully and extensively considering your original proposal…we have decided to deny the waiver request," Shahin's letter said. She noted practical concerns about the ban, saying that the proposal was “too large and too complex." She added that it would be difficult to determine which beverage products would be eligible under the proposed ban, as would identifying the impact on a reduction in obesity rates. Forcing compliance from retailers that sell sugary beverages was also cited as a difficulty. Shahin said the federal government is willing to work with New York on other efforts to encourage consumers to make “healthy choices.”
In a statement about the denial of New York's waiver, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that instead of a sugary beverage ban, USDA would prefer "incentive-based solutions that are better suited for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals” who rely on Food Stamps.
New York City has more than 1.8 million of America's 45.7 million Food Stamp beneficiaries. USDA had long been expected to reject the request, which was being viewed by nutrition advocates as a test case for bans in other municipalities. The New York proposal caused an outcry from hunger action groups and Food Stamp users. Beverage companies lobbied vigorously against it, of course, as did those who grow sugar crops. Food and beverage corporations want the profits from the billions of dollars taxpayers spend on Food Stamps monthly. In May, that was $6.1 billion.
Sugary beverages are not the only low-nutrition foods that Food Stamp users can purchase with benefits. Candy, cookies, snack crackers, potato chips, "bakery cakes" and ice cream are also on the list of allowed foods. Beneficiaries in some states can also use their Food Stamps to purchase meals at fast food restaurants--McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC.
Still, while allowing 45.7 million Americans to use their Food Stamp benefits to purchase the kind of foods that can lead to obesity, the Obama Administration uses catastrophic language to describe the "crisis."
"This generation of children may be the first to die younger than their parents," Mrs. Obama has said.
"It's not just a health issue for children, it's a national security issue," Mrs. Obama has also said of America's obesity rate, pointing out that a large percentage of military recruits can't qualify for service due to obesity.
Both statements are a standard part of the Let's Move! rhetoric, being repeated by many Administration officials, including Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Defense Department officials, and Sam Kass, the White House's Senior Policy Advisor For Healthy Food Initiatives.
"About a third of our increase in health care cost is directly attributable to obesity and illnesses like diabetes that are entirely preventable and curable," President Obama told a crowd at a town hall in Alpha, Illinois, on Wednesday, as he discussed the Let's Move! campaign. The Administration has pegged this number at $149 billion annually.
Taxpayers fund the national security threat: Every Food Stamp dollar spent on junk food won't be spent on fruit and vegetables...
But while spending $6.1 billion monthly on Food Stamps benefits sounds like a huge sum, it affords individuals an average monthly payment of just $133.80. USDA hasn't ever issued a report on what foods Food Stamp recipients actually purchase with their benefits, so it's unknown how much of the relatively small personal sum each Food Stamp user spends on sugary beverages or junk food.
What is known: Every Food Stamp dollar that's spent on a can of soda, cookies, or a bag of chips is a dollar that isn't spent on an apple, on broccoli, on spinach, on healthy protein. The Administration recently spent millions of dollars to develop and launch the MyPlate campaign, a multi-tiered initiative to raise Americans' awareness about the importance of eating according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Citizens are being encouraged to fill half their plates with fruit and vegetables at every meal, at a time when the prices of these items remains stubbornly high.
So allowing Food Stamp users to purchase foods that have no or low nutritional benefit is a curious decision for a program that was designed to boost access to healthy foods when it was authorized as a permanent program in 1964. Despite the Let's Move! goal of ending childhood obesity within a generation, the government is willing to have taxpayers subsidize high-calorie drinks and junk foods. This does nothing to achieve the goal of ending obesity, but could undermine it. The federal government is having Americans pay for their own national security threat. And for their ballooning health care costs.
Vilsack made headlines earlier this week when he said in an interview that Food Stamps are a job-creating economic stimulus.
"Every dollar of SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in the economy in terms of economic activity," Vilsack said. "If people are able to buy a little more in the grocery store, someone has to stock it, package it, shelve it, process it, ship it. All of those are jobs. It's the most direct stimulus you can get in the economy during these tough times."
The Administration seems to be more interested in the economic stimulus angle of Food Stamps than in using the benefits to help Americans eat nutritious foods. The junk foods allowed in the Food Stamp program are in direct contrast to the healthier foods that are required in the federal National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, as well as in the WIC program, for mothers and children. The Obama Administration passed historic legislation in 2010 to retool the nutrition requirements in the school feeding programs, which will eventually make school cafeteria offerings far healthier. By denying New York's request, USDA dropped the ball on an experiment that could have led to more historic, healthy change.
White House won't lead soda ban, either...
The White House is committed to the idea that sugary beverages can be part of a healthy diet, if the diet is based on moderation and balance. Speaking at the 6th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference in June, the nation's largest such gathering, Senior Policy Advisor Kass told his audience not to expect a White House-led ban on soda as part of Mrs. Obama's anti-obesity crusade.
“This issue [obesity] is not caused by one drink,” Kass said. “It’s about a much broader food landscape.”
In a statement, Bloomberg said he was disappointed by USDA's denial.
“We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country--and at little or no cost to taxpayers,” Bloomberg said.
“We’re disappointed that the Federal Government didn’t agree and sorry that families and children may suffer from their unwillingness to explore our proposal,” Bloomberg said.
“We are confident that we can solve the problem of obesity and promote good nutrition and health for all Americans and stand ready to work with New York City to achieve these goals," Vilsack said.
UPDATE: Vilsack called Bloomberg to personally deliver the news that New York's proposal was getting the ax, mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser told New York Post.
*A note on the soda can images: PepsiCo retooled its logo while Mr. Obama was running for president in 2008. Observers couldn't help but notice the *similarity* to the Obama campaign logo, created by graphic designer Sol Sender of Chicago firm "Mode," and came up with the co-soda can image.
PepsiCo is also among the many major food corporations that have vowed support for the Let's Move! campaign, participating in a pledge to "dump" trillions of calories from the US food chain.