Could SNAP Ban Soft Drinks as Food Stamp Purchases? Arguments For and Against Latest Proposal

young family father and son walking through large food store with trolley looking around and talking.
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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to help low-income U.S. households buy food — and the healthier the better. But some folks think SNAP recipients don’t put a big enough emphasis on the “nutrition” part of the program and have launched efforts to ban the purchase of soft drinks and other high-sugar items.

One of those folks is Florida state Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Republican representing Citrus County. Massullo is sponsoring legislation that would urge Congress to prohibit the use of SNAP benefits to purchase soft drinks, the Florida Phoenix reported.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program administered at the state level, meaning states have a lot of leeway to customize the program to suit their individual needs.

In Florida, Massullo’s legislation — called a “memorial” in the Sunshine State — asserts that consuming soft drinks can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health disorders such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, and that soft drinks are “nutrient poor but rich in calories.”

“What I’m trying to do with this memorial is present evidence to the federal government that they need to evaluate these programs to make them more nutritious to help these people that are in need,” Massullo told a Florida House committee last week.

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Some Democrats on the committee, including Reps. Rita Harris and Michele Rayner-Goolsby, countered that the legislation could end up shaming people who try to purchase soft drinks with SNAP benefits. Both Harris and Rayner said they have been on food stamps at one time in their lives.

Another critic of the legislation, Democrat Felicia Robinson, called it “a little hypocritical. We’re saying that people that have money, they can buy whatever they want, but because we’re assisting a certain group, we’re going to restrict what they buy.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth DeWitt, president of the Florida Beverage Association, said her organization opposes the legislation. She shared data with the subcommittee showing that even though soda consumption has declined, obesity rates have increased. The implication is that the consumption of soda alone does not directly lead to obesity.

Even so, plenty of evidence suggests that soft drinks can have a negative effect on health. A 2022 report from the National Institutes of Health stated that the “the cumulative evidence from observational studies and experimental trials indicates that the regular consumption of soft drinks, particularly sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), causes unhealthy weight gains.”

A separate report from the Harvard School of Health noted that sugary drinks fall at the bottom of the list of beverages best for health because they “provide so many calories and virtually no other nutrients … Beyond weight gain, routinely drinking these sugar-loaded beverages can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.”

The question is whether SNAP recipients are being treated unfairly by bans on certain items that other consumers can purchase.

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A 2016 USDA study found that 9.3% of the average SNAP household’s grocery bill is spent on “sweetened beverages” such as soda and pop, according to a recent blog from the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think tank. That compares to 7.1% for non-SNAP households, so the difference is minimal.

Florida isn’t the first state to consider limiting the ability of SNAP recipients to purchase certain items. Illinois, Minnesota and Texas have all pursued similar initiatives, but none of those proposals were successful.

In Maine, efforts to prohibit food assistance benefits from being used to buy sugar-sweetened drinks or candy have twice been denied by the federal government, Radio Iowa reported.

In addition, the U.S. beverage industry successfully blocked attempts to include the prohibition in the 2018 Farm Bill, where the rules for food stamps are written.

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