We Need a Stronger Message in the Fight Against Obesity

Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. It is time for the federal government to take a second look at this issue.
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All the evidence is in, and it is abundantly clear that New Yorkers and Americans in general, are living through an obesity crisis. More than one third of U.S. adults and about 24 percent of New Yorkers are obese, and obesity rates among children and adolescence has almost tripled since the 1980s. As commissioner of the agency which oversees food stamps in the New York City area, I'm reminded every day of how this growing problem affects those living in poverty. The low-income population served by the Food Stamp program is more likely to consume sugar-sweetened drinks like sodas, which lead to obesity and the associated health risks. A recent study found that low-income households spend approximately 8.7 percent of their food budgets on sweetened beverages. This means that as much as $295 million in food stamp benefits are spent per year on sweetened beverages in NYC.

Diabetes and other obesity-linked diseases are on the rise, not only in adults but in our children. A recent study found that Type 2 Diabetes, which is also known as 'Adult-Onset' Diabetes, is being diagnosed in children at a frightening rate. What's more, when it develops in children, Type 2 Diabetes progresses faster, and has much more severe consequences. Attempts to treat the disease aggressively have not been successful, and now most health professionals recommend parents and children do everything possible to prevent the disease.

The largest contributors to the obesity epidemic are refined sugars, like those found in sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

New Yorkers with the lowest income are more likely to consume at least one sugar-sweetened drink per day -- more than a third of New Yorkers in low-income neighborhoods drink at least one soda per day, compared to less than a quarter in higher-income neighborhoods. Lower-income Americans are also more likely to suffer from obesity.

Some insist that education campaigns targeting low-income consumers will change bad habits. However, a recent USDA evaluation of its own programs found that these programs had no statistically significant impact on their main objective -- fostering healthy food choices in the populations they target. While the programs showed positive results in some other nutrition-related areas, this is not enough, and it is unlikely that education alone will solve the problem.

To solve this problem, we need more than nutrition education. In 2010, New York City submitted a proposal to the USDA to remove sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of items that could be bought with food stamps. We believe that this proposal was consistent with the program's goals -- to help low-income families and individuals afford more nutritious foods -- and with the Obama administration's goals of reducing childhood obesity. Other programs, like the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, already exclude sodas. Unfortunately, the USDA rejected our proposal in 2011.

We continue to promote good nutrition any way we can. We work with the Department of Health to distribute Health Bucks -- two dollar coupons that Food Stamps clients receive whenever they spend five dollars at one of the city's farmers' markets. We are also publishing a booklet called "Cut the Junk" comparing the cost, calories and nutritional value of eating fast food vs. cooking healthy meals at home, and offering healthy recipes and advice on reading food labels.

Actions like these will help, but the stakes are high, and we need to take a stronger stance on something that could endanger the health of millions of children.

Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Other products that cause serious risk to health like alcohol and cigarettes are already excluded from the Food Stamp program. It is time for the federal government to take a second look at this issue -- and stop ignoring one of the primary causes of an epidemic that is plaguing more and more people.

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