By PATRICK McGEEHAN NYT
Federal officials on Friday rejected Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal to bar New York City’s food stamp users from buying soda and other sugary drinks with them.
The decision derailed one of the mayor’s big ideas to fight obesity and poor nutrition in the city. Mr. Bloomberg and the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, were quick to criticize the ruling by the United States Department of Agriculture as a disservice to low-income residents.
Dr. Farley, who said he was “very upset” by the decision, said that it “ really calls into question how serious the U.S.D.A. is about addressing the nation’s most serious nutritional problem.”
In October, city and state officials proposed a two-year experiment to see if the prohibition would reduce obesity among people who buy their groceries with food stamps. Dr. Farley said that about 57 percent of adults in the city and 40 percent of the children in its public schools were overweight or obese, and that obesity was especially rampant in low-income neighborhoods. Limiting consumption of sodas and other drinks with high sugar content, he argued, could help reverse that trend.
But in a letter to a New York State official, an administrator of the food stamp program in Washington said the city’s proposed experiment would have been “too large and complex” to implement and evaluate.
Jessica Shahin, an associate administrator in the Agriculture Department, wrote that the waiver the city sought was denied because of the logistical difficulty of sorting out which beverages could or could not be purchased with food stamps and because it would be hard to gauge how effective the step was in reducing obesity. As an alternative, Ms. Shahin suggested the federal government could work with the city on other efforts to encourage consumers to make “healthy choices.”
Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, said in a statement that the department “has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions that are better-suited for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals” who rely on food stamps than restrictions are. “We are confident that we can solve the problem of obesity and promote good nutrition and health for all Americans and stand ready to work with New York City to achieve these goals.”
The city’s proposal was part of Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign to make the city a healthier place, which has included banning smoking indoors and in public parks, barring restaurants from cooking with trans fats and requiring them to inform customers about calorie counts. The mayor was not pleased with the rejection.
“We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything else being proposed elsewhere in this country — and at little or no cost to taxpayers,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement. “We’re disappointed that the federal government didn’t agree, and sorry that families and children may suffer from their unwillingness to explore our proposal. New York City will continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that hurt New Yorkers and Americans from coast to coast.”
The decision was a victory for the soft-drink industry, which had lobbied against the proposal, and for advocates for the poor and underfed, who had argued that the government should not stigmatize them by taking away their right to shop like other consumers. The food-selling industry also contended that it would be too complicated for stores to have to program their registers differently in the city than elsewhere.
“It was a big deal not to start breaking up the programs,” said Jennifer Hatcher, senior vice president for government relations at the Food Marketing Institute in Washington.
The disappointment of Mr. Bloomberg and Dr. Farley was matched by the thrill in the voice of Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who cheered the federal government for “deciding not to micromanage” the lives of poor people.
“The whole attempt was misguided and unworkable,” Mr. Berg said. “This proposal was based on the false assumption that poor people were somehow ignorant or culturally deficient.”
The decision was the second in seven years in which the Agriculture Department rejected such a proposed ban. In 2004, it denied a request by officials in Minnesota to prevent food stamp recipients from buying junk food.
The Agriculture Department questioned the merits of that plan, which focused on candy and soda, among other foods, and said it would “perpetuate the myth” that food stamp users made poor shopping decisions.
Mr. Berg and other advocates for the poor and underfed said that New York City’s proposal would have had a similar effect. Instead of restricting the dietary choices of low-income residents, he said, city officials should reconsider how to increase the purchasing power of low-income residents so that they can buy food that is more nutritious.
“If healthier food is made affordable and accessible,” he said, “low-income people will line up to get it.”