New York City Mayor Bloomberg has made campaigns against unhealthy diets a personal cause — highly personal, we gather, as is often the case with people who battle their own health demons.
Back in 2006, Bloomberg’s administration led the country in prohibiting restaurants from serving foods containing artery-clogging trans fats. Next it became the first to mandate calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. Next came a crusade against the sodium content in processed foods.
Bloomberg then zeroed in on soft drinks. In March, he voiced his support for a statewide penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks that New York Governor Patterson proposed after backing off a similar revenue-raiser last year.
Now he’s in the news again with a plan to prohibit New York City residents from using food stamps to purchase soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
For this he needs approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He’s proposing the ban as a two-year experiment to see whether it has a positive impact on food stamp recipients’ health — presumably by getting them to switch to more nutritious choices.
This is quite different from Bloomberg’s other campaigns. They sought to improve the diets of all New Yorkers — rich, poor and in between.
True, the soft drink tax would disproportionately affect low-income consumers. But the food stamp restriction is still different. It would single poor people out for a novel experiment in behavioral modification. No voluntary consent here.
Nor any assurance it will work. Researchers at USDA looked at the strategy three years ago and concluded that disallowing an “unhealthful” food choice “may have limited effectiveness.” Recipients may continue buying the forbidden item with their own money. Or they may just switch to other items that deliver little more by way of nutritional value.
So perhaps people with a sweet tooth will cut back on other expenditures we consider essential rather than forego one of the few indulgences within their reach. Or maybe they won’t buy so many Cokes, but go for Hershey bars and Twinkies instead. I suppose Bloomberg would say we’ll find out if he’s allowed to proceed with his experiment.
The truth of the matter, however, is that he’s proposing the soft drink ban as a test to bring it within the ambit of “demonstration projects” because it would otherwise be clearly impermissible under federal law. Joel Berg, Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says it’s still illegal.
USDA may think so too. In 2004, it denied a somewhat similar request by Minnesota in part because the proposed ban would “stigmatize food stamp recipients.”
Denying them — and only them — free choice in the grocery aisles “would perpetuate the myth that participants [in the program] do not make wise food purchasing decisions,” while research indicates they tend to be as “smart shoppers” as higher-income consumers.
To me, this comes close to the heart of the issue. Why should poor people be semi-coerced to eat more healthfully than the rest of us?
Granted, our taxpayer dollars pay for food stamps. So we’re subsidizing consumption of high-sugar beverages, which are said to be a leading factor in the rising rates of overweight and obesity. This means they’re also partly responsible for rising health care costs. We taxpayers bear the burden of these too.
But obesity isn’t a problem among low-income people alone. They do overall have a higher body-mass index (the common measure for healthy and unhealthy weights) than higher income groups. But, as the Food Research and Action Center reports, research shows that the risk varies by age, gender and race/ethnicity.
More importantly, higher-income groups are catching up with the poorest sector of the population. If soft drinks are the big culprit here, why not ban them for everyone?
We all know the answer. That’s why Bloomberg chose to limit his new initiative to those with the least political power — and to keep the issue out of the legislature, where the soft drink industry, its allies and influential nutrition policy experts could probably quash it.
If he wants to run an experiment, he’s got fairer and more promising alternatives. How about boosting food stamp benefits to see if recipients buy more fresh fruits and vegetables when they can afford them?