Thursday, October 7, 2010

Soda and Food Stamps

The New York Times reports this morning that New York State and the City of New York are petitioning to bar food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy sodas and other sugary drinks. The request, filed with the US Department of Agriculture on Wednesday, would prevent people enrolled in the food stamp program from using their benefits to purchase the beverages for two years, with the possibility of a permanent ban to follow. You can read the full article here, and a Times editorial in support of the measure here.

The move comes on the heels of New York City's failed attempt to impose a tax on all sodas and sugary beverages earlier this year. You can read a Times article about the soda tax by the prominent food writer Mark Bittman here, and a New York Observer editorial in favor of the tax here. During the debates over the proposed soda tax, critics argued that the state and city governments were disingenuous in their claim that the tax was about the health of the citizenry, and that that tax was simply a way to replenish government coffers that had been depleted by the financial crisis. The current petition seems to lay that criticism to rest--or at least to suggest that if the money raised from taxation was a factor, the health of citizens was also a primary concern.

For a different and more complex take on these issues, see Christopher Bonanos' New York Magazine editorial "Taxa-Cola: Why Tax Soda that We Already Subsidize?" here. Bonanos takes issue with the proposed soda tax on the basis that the root of the problem is not consumer's desire for soda but the federal subsidies and other measures that make high-fructose corn syrup so cheap to begin with: "We pay federal taxes to make that can of Mountain Dew cheaper than it should be, encouraging us to buy it. Then we are scolded by public-health authorities for doing so. Then New York proposes another tax, to discourage us from buying it." In other words, according to Bonano, the tax is a small-scale, local attempt to fix a large-scale, national problem--and an attempt to fix that problem by focusing on individual consumers rather than the system that produces it in the first place. Although Bonanos is writing about the soda tax, it would be easy to extend his argument to the current effort to ban the purchase of soda with food stamps.

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