A new study reveals food stamps in the U.S. are used to buy soft drinks more than any other product.
The report was published in November by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, notes The New York Times.
The USDA administers the $74 billion food stamp program -- known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- which benefits 43 million needy Americans.
According to the report, 5 percent of food purchases by SNAP households are sweetened carbonated beverages. The study is based on a survey of a nationwide grocery chain, which provided the USDA with monthly records of food items bought in 2011 by more than 26 million households, about 3 million of them food stamp recipients.
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In reaction to the study's findings, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University declared that "SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry."
Even before the report was published, many U.S. cities, states and medical groups have requested that junk food or sugary soft drinks should not be available for purchase using SNAP benefits.
Critics say the powerful food and beverage lobbies have vigorously opposed such measures, and have successfully influenced the USDA to deny those requests. Defending its decision not to put restrictions on SNAP purchases, the USDA argues that selectively banning certain foods would be unfair.
David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, is not convinced by that argument, pointing out that many other government government programs have similar restrictions.
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For example, he cites the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, and the national school lunch program, both of which have strict nutrition standards.
“No one is suggesting poor people can’t choose what they want to eat," argues Ludwig. "But we’re saying let’s not use government benefits to pay for foods that are demonstrably going to undermine public health.”
The USDA also says households receiving SNAP benefits are not much different than the general population regarding what they buy at the grocery store, noting that sugary soft drinks rank second on the list of food purchases by non-SNAP households.
“Sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America,” Kevin Concannon, the USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in an interview. “This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?”