Mayor Says Food Stamps Shouldn't Cover Sodas

Calling sugary drinks the "single largest contributor" to the city's obesity problem, Mayor Bloomberg has launched another public health effort to change how New Yorkers eat: He wants low-income New Yorkers to stop using their food stamps to buy soft drinks and other sweet beverages.

The proposal for a two-year pilot program requires approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the national food stamp program. The mayor says low-income New Yorkers spend six percent of their food stamps on sugary drinks, the equivalent of about $75 million to $135 million, and have a much greater chance of becoming obese, or diabetic. He also argues that in tough times, taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing the purchase of sodas or energy drinks, and that reducing their consumption would lead to a drop in health-care costs.

"We have to continue developing new strategies and initiatives to complement what has already been done," he said. "And that’s why we are looking to eliminate sugary beverages from allowable food stamp purchases. This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment."

Governor Paterson joined the mayor for the announcement in Brooklyn on Thursday.

"The serious chronic illnesses related to obesity -- diabetes, cancer and heart disease -- take a toll on our family, friends and neighbors," said the governor, "but also carry a cost that we all bear, as nearly half of the $147 billion spent nationally on treatment per year is paid by Medicaid and Medicare."

The idea has won the backing of groups like the United Way. But Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger says it won't reduce obesity, until stores in low-income neighborhoods begin stocking healthier alternatives. The city, he notes, has been expanding the range of healthy foods distributed in those neighborhoods, and should stick to that strategy.

"So before we go off half-cocked and say 'let's micro-manage the lives of poor people,' let's expand the programs we know that are working that are helping low-income make better food choices because they want to make better food choices," said Berg.