To ban or not to ban: The debate on sugary drinks and SNAP

By Sandra

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- It's an idea that's been knocked around and shot down for years: should sugary drinks be banned from the food stamp program?

According to an article published Friday in The State, South Carolina Department of health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton and Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller were brainstorming how to do just that.

It's a conversation that may have gotten its roots right here in the Lowcountry. Founder and CEO of Louie's Kids, Louis Yuhasz, has made it his personal mission to get kids of all ages on the right nutritional track, taking his message to the people who can make the changes he says our kids so desperately need.

That message was broadcast in an editorial he wrote for The State: From Malnutrition to Mis-Nutrition, and that editorial caught DHEC's and DSS's attention.

"I've been talking about this for over a year now and I met with the USDA's Director of WIC, SNAP and EBT who said a waiver's never been granted," said Yuhasz. "But a lot of folks know to not tell me never."

It's no secret that obesity is a problem in South Carolina. The 2011 South Carolina Obesity Burden Report lists the statistics:

  • 67.4 percent of all adults are either overweight or obese;
  • Almost 30 percent of all high school students are overweight or obese;
  • $1.2 billion was spent due to obesity in the state which is expected to rise to $5.3 billion in 2018;
  • Halting the increase in obesity could save the state a total of $3 billion in obesity-related healthcare.

Unfortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, the federal agency in charge of what used to be called the Food Stamp Program, has listed their reasons why restricting what foods recipients can buy isn't a good idea.

In a 2007 report, it noted that:

  • No clear standards exist for what is good/bad, healthy/unhealthy;
  • Restrictions would increase cost and complexity;
  • There's no evidence that food stamps contribute to poor diet or obesity.

The report also points out that even if participants can't use food stamps to buy unhealthy foods, what's to stop them from using their own money, thus lessening the effects of the ban?

That's one major point that Templeton addresses.

"You treat your body the way you want to treat your body," Templeton told The State. "But the government shouldn't be subsidizing it."

How much taxpayer money are we talking about?

According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released on Jan. 14, 870,000 South Carolina residents, or 19 percent of the state population, are on food stamps. The average monthly payout for each family member was $131.38.

In a nationwide study done by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, it was found that SNAP benefits paid for 72 percent{} of the sugar-sweetened beverage purchases made by SNAP households. The report found, on a national level, SNAP pays at least $2 billion for sugary drinks bought in grocery stores, not including Walmart.

"SNAP benefits are critically important in helping low-income families put food on the table, and in this economy, many American families could not feed their children without the federal food assistance provided by SNAP," said Rudd Director of Economic Initiatives Tatiana Andreyeva in a Yale news release. "At the same time, the annual use of billions of dollars in SNAP benefits to purchase products at the core of public health concerns about obesity and chronic illnesses is misaligned with the goal of helping economically vulnerable families live active, healthy lives."

Yuhasz points out that what's good for the nation's infants should be good for older children as well.

"In the Women's Infants and Children's program (WIC) you cannot buy sodas. So why can you on SNAP?" he asked. "Why is (WIC) so regulated that you can only buy serious staples, but once your kid turns three or four we don't care what we feed them?"

Yuhasz also has a bone to pick with the USDA's reasons to not regulate SNAP purchases.

"Does it take clear standards of any kind to tell the average American that sugar-sweet soft drinks and sodas are not healthy? How could any reasonable person or government say there's any kind of 'healthfulness' to sodas?" Yuhasz asked.

A look at what you can buy with SNAP benefits seems to back up his claim. How easy would it be to simply say sodas no longer count as a "food product?"

"Any average person out there paying taxes would say that sodas, of all things, should be considered just like cigarettes and alcohol - not available for purchase with food stamps," said Yuhasz.

According to the USDA, Congress decided that "designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome" adding that "the task of identifying, evaluating, and tracking the nutritional profile of every food available for purchase would be substantial."

One solution that Templeton, according to The State, is considering, is launching the restriction as a test in the areas of the state where there are the most SNAP participants and focusing on sugary drinks only.

The conclusion of the Yale study seems to agree that a change is needed.

"Considerable amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages are purchased by households participating in WIC and SNAP. The SNAP program pays for most of the sugar-sweetened beverage purchases among SNAP households. The upcoming SNAP reauthorization could be a good time to reconsider the program priorities to align public funds with public health," the report states.

Every five years, the national SNAP/Food Stamp program is re-authorized by Congress as part of the Farm Bill. The next reauthorization is slated for sometime this year.

Thanks to one driven Charleston resident, however, changes could come to our state sooner than later.

To find out more about Louie's Kids, click here.