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Let Them Drink Soda

BY Terry J. Allen

The millions that New York’s food stamp recipients spend annually on sugary drinks amount to a handout to soft drink manufacturers.

Surely it is paternalistic to bar the poor from using food stamps to buy soda–as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is advocating. Clearly they have the same right as everyone else to eat crap. Certainly a soda ban sits on a slippery slope that ends in government-mandated meals of bulgur and kale.

 But just as surely, the up to $135 million that New York City’s food stamp recipients spend annually on sugary drinks amount to a government handout to soft drink manufacturers. Nationally, soda companies raked in a $4 billion subsidy last year through purchases by the 41 million Americans on food stamps.

And since soda is in its essence high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and water, this corporate welfare supplements the $243 million yearly subsidy that America’s HFCS producers reap through skewed farm policies. Corn is so highly subsidized that producers, including HFCS king Archer Daniels Midland, manufactured it at 27 percent below cost between 1997 and 2005 and pocketed a sweet $2.2 billion in government-gifted savings.

 Food stamp dollars for soda are also subsidizing widespread obesity, an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, and other sweetener-linked conditions. If eating and exercise patterns don’t change, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently predicted, nearly half of black and Hispanic children born in 2000 will become diabetic, while other groups will have a 33 percent lifetime risk. And Type 2, (formerly called “Adult-onset” diabetes) is now increasing rapidly among teens and even children.

 As is sweetener consumption–which has shot up by 40 pounds in the last 40 years, a Tufts University study found. Much of the increase comes from soda, with a can of Coke, for example, supplying 10 teaspoons (140 calories) of sweetener.

 Noting that New York’s poor have twice the rate of Type 2 as the wealthiest, Bloomberg asked the Department of Agriculture to allow a two-year pilot program that adds soda to the list of items, including tobacco and alcohol, that the city’s 1.7 million food stamp recipients cannot buy with benefits.

 The nation’s trendy shift to cane sugar will not matter much. The difference between it and HFCS may be more a matter of profitability than nutrition, although there is some evidence that HFCS is inherently more harmful. Because of the way it is manufactured, some HFCS contains mercury, a potent brain toxin, at higher levels than those considered safe by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, a 2009 article in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Health found. While the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found no mercury in soda in the majority of beverages it tested, it was present in “nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products including in such brands as Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.”

 In response to Mayor Mike’s proposed ban, the American Beverage Association–not previously known as a defender of civic rights or an advocate for the poor–accused the Bloomberg of going all bad-nanny-state: “This is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink, and [it] will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it.”

While that corporate spin is as transparent as 7-Up, critics do have a valid point when they argue that the poor turn to junk and fast food not out of ignorance, but because they are generally easier to obtain than fresh produce and other healthier items–and they deliver far cheaper calories. But part of the economic draw derives from farm policies that–through subsidies that create cheap corn-based foods, including soda and meat–inherently disadvantage more healthful items.

 So let’s hear it for a slippery slope that would start with a test ban on soda and slide on down to a national program to ban welfare for corn and HFCS-producers, and redirect that funding to grow affordable healthier foods and to subsidize food stamp buying power for fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

 The savings in health and healthcare costs would be sweet. And, after all, soda is not food.

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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