NEW YORK—The mayors of St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and 14 other cities are reviving a push against letting food stamps be used to buy soda and other sugary drinks.
In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Tuesday, the mayors say it’s “time to test and evaluate approaches limiting” the use of the subsidies for sugar-laden beverages, in the interest of fighting obesity and related diseases.
“We need to find ways to strengthen the program and promote good nutrition while limiting the use of these resources for items with no nutritional value, like sugary drinks, that are actually harming the health of participants,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose office released the letter, said in a statement. “Why should we continue supporting unhealthy purchases in the false name of nutrition assistance?”
The other cities whose mayors signed the letter are St. Louis; Baltimore; Boston; Louisville, Ky.; Madison, Wis.; Minneapolis; Newark, N.J.; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; and Seattle.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, declined to comment on Tuesday’s letter. Representatives for Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, to whom the letter was addressed, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The American Beverage Association, which has previously clashed with Bloomberg, said sugary drinks shouldn’t be singled out as a cause of obesity. It called obesity “a complex health condition that affects Americans of all income levels.”
“Targeting struggling families who rely on (food stamps’) vital safety net will not make America healthier or reduce government spending,” the association, which represents the non-alcoholic, refreshment beverage industry, said in an emailed statement.
Last year, more than 47 million Americans used food stamps—technically, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The benefits can’t go to buy alcohol, cigarettes, hot food and some other items. Proposals to stop people from using the benefit to buy soda, candy and other items seen as unhealthy have been floated for decades; opponents have said such restrictions would be paternalistic and might discourage needy people from getting the subsidies.
Bloomberg has gotten national attention for trying to bar eateries from selling sugary drinks in big sizes, and he has tried before to stop food stamps from going to buy soda. In 2010, he and then-Gov. David Paterson sought the USDA’s permission to add sugary drinks to the list of prohibited food-stamp purchases for New York City residents. The agency declined.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg wrote to Senate Agriculture Committee members to applaud a proposal to have the USDA conduct a two-state test of limiting the use of food stamps to buy unhealthy food and drinks. The proposal wasn’t included in the version of the massive farm bill the Senate passed last week; the House is preparing to consider it this week.
The mayors’ letter also expressed concerns about the legislation’s proposed cuts in funding for food stamps and suggested providing incentives to use them for fruits and vegetables.
Here is the text of the letter:
Dear Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi:
As you resume your consideration of the Farm Bill, we write regarding our concern about proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides essential food support to families and individuals across the country. As the mayors of major cities across the United States, we see the impact that poverty and poor health have on our most vulnerable residents, and we recognize the role that the SNAP program has played in mitigating these challenges. We urge you to maintain funding for this program and also to consider our suggestions for its improvement.
Today, approximately 47 million Americans, more than half of whom are children and seniors, rely on this program, in many cases during transitional periods of hardship. If enacted, the proposed deep cuts to SNAP would undermine the program’s role as a buffer against both food insecurity and poverty - a role that the program should play for all those who can demonstrate the appropriate level of economic need, including the formerly incarcerated who have already paid their debt to society.
We also believe the program can do more to address the pressing challenge of obesity and diet-related disease. More than one third of American adults are now obese, costing approximately $147 billion per year in associated medical expenses. As a result of obesity, this generation of American children is the first to face the possibility of a shorter life expectancy than their parents. It is time to test and evaluate approaches limiting SNAP’s subsidization of products, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, that are contributing to obesity. At the same time, SNAP can also promote healthful eating by providing incentives for the consumption of fruits and vegetables by SNAP recipients, similar to the programs which have been successfully piloted in many of our cities that provide additional spending power to recipients who use their benefits at farmers markets.
Finally, SNAP can also be strengthened by Congressional support for state- and local-level antifraud efforts aimed at retailers, to ensure public confidence that food stamp dollars are getting to those in need.
There could not be a more critical time for Congress to create a Farm Bill that protects our nutrition assistance programs and is responsive to the mounting crisis of diet-related disease that we are facing. In our cities we are working to ensure that all of our residents have access to healthy foods and to reduce health disparities across populations. Our ability to advance these goals will be significantly impacted by the next Farm Bill. We believe that your objectives of fiscal responsibility and a healthy future can be met while protecting the most vulnerable and strengthening the nation’s most significant nutrition assistance program.
Thank you for your consideration.
Mayor of New York City Michael R. Bloomberg
Mayor of Salt Lake City Ralph Becker
Mayor of Newark Cory Booker
Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel
Mayor of Louisville Greg Fischer
Mayor of Portland Charlie Hales
Mayor of San Francisco Edwin E. Lee
Mayor of Seattle Michael McGinn
Mayor of Boston Thomas M. Menino
Mayor of Philadelphia Michael A. Nutter
Mayor of Oakland Jean Quan
Mayor of Baltimore Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak
Mayor of St. Louis Francis G. Slay
Mayor of Madison Paul R. Soglin
Mayor of Phoenix Greg Stanton
Mayor of Providence Angel Taveras
Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio R. Villaraigosa