Soda Pop and Food Stamps

A discussion is going on at the COMFOOD listserv about current policy proposals to eliminate buying soda pop with SNAP benefits (formerly known as “food stamps”).

One participant wrote:

Sticking with the structural racism toolbox, I believe restricting SNAP  would – regardless of the best intentions – result in less resources for hungry families and increased stigma associated with federal nutrition programs. That these outcomes would fall only on the poor (read minority, working-class) invites a claim of structural racism more than any press release from Feeding America.

This is my response (lightly edited to remove typos, a grammatical monstrosity or two, and to clarify a couple of points).

With all the respect and love I can muster. . . I have to say that I disagree with this paragraph. I am not interested in picking a fight, but this is an important issue and it will be in the news a lot and I think it should be discussed in the food security community.

Every month, I and a small group of volunteers deliver food to about 350 low income households here in Oklahoma City who have no household transportation and are thus at a disadvantage in accessing the local network of emergency food pantries. We get most of our food from the Regional Food Bank in Oklahoma City.

I also hold a certificate in permaculture design, and for ten years have moderated the Running on Empty2 discussion group, which has about 7400 subscribers and 70K+ messages in our archive, discussing energy issues from a peak oil perspective. Given that orientation, we also talk a lot about food. And I am one of the founders of the Oklahoma Food Coop, which was the first coop in the US to only sell locally produced food and non-food products.

I am very sympathetic to the “don’t pick on the poor” argument, because that happens all the time. Over the last 50 years, an enormous amount of low income housing has been destroyed by eminent domain, and the use of that land converted for other purposes, and much of the low income housing has not been replaced. So less supply plus more demand equals higher prices than would be true if the low income housing had been left in place.  This isn’t even the beginning of the sorrows of the poor in our society and the situation elsewhere is of course even worse. Unimaginably worse.

So my assumption is “picking on the poor” is always the default option for the powers that be.

We also pick on the planet a lot. When it doubt, put in a polluting factory to feed a gluttonous lifestyle that burns resources like they were available perpetually in unlimited mounts. Subsidize the chemical destruction  of our nation’s agricultural patrimony. Subsidize bigness, penalize smallness, ignore the long term ecological consequences of your actions.

One permaculture principle that applies here I think is “do no harm”.

And since perfection should never be allowed to become the enemy of the good, if we can’t “do not harm”, then we should try to “do less harm”.

Anywhere, anyhow, anytime we can.

Those of us concerned about ecology, global climate change, peak oil and energy resources, peak finance and financial collapse, social injustice — and our common food security in the midst of all this turmoil — should jump on every opportunity to tweak the “invisible structures” that prescribe/dictate/coerce the patterns that make it so hard to do good, and so easy to do bad, in the direction of “do less harm”.

Making it easy, cheap, and convenient for low income people to buy soft drinks does not do any favor to any low income person. Indeed, easy, cheap,and ubiquitous availability of instant gratification consumer items is a critical support for the powers that be (and this embraces political, economic, media, and cultural powers). It helps keep people anesthetized  and distracted so they don’t cause any serious trouble for the established system.

It helps that there is a constant public information campaign linking soft drink consumption with all kinds of fun and glamor. They never show, for example, interviews with people coping with the consequences of not-well-controlled diabetes.

Everywhere we go, the government is subsidizing, and thus encouraging, actions that are destructive to both people and the planet.

How do soft drinks directly harm low income people? (1) Diabetes, (2) Obesity, (3) they substitute for more healthy and nutritious beverages, thus driving nutritional depletion, (4) the containers create a trash and litter problem everywhere, (5) tooth decay, (6) heart disease.

How do soft drinks harm the planet? The industry consumes vast amounts of resources — energy, metals, water, agricultural production, and it is an energy sink, nothing productive results. It is the economic, moral, and social equivalent of piling up gigantic inventories of bullets, bombs, and missiles, and every so often having wars that deplete your stockpiles so that they require more resources to refill your inventory. War also helps in that it destroys all kinds of stuff, kills off useless marginal eaters, and thus more money is required for corporations. (The previous sentence is from the viewpoint of the powers that be.) Soft drinks cause a large array of health problems, which require more resources to treat, feeding even more six figure salaries and unimaginable corporate profits. The industry commands vast economic resources. This toxic combination of resource depletion and economic distortion constitutes a massive misallocation of resources that effectively subsidizes environmental destruction.

All of the environmental harm caused by soft drinks should also be seen as an indirect harm on low income people.

It’s not possible to legislatively deal with the soft drink situation (in general), but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take what we can get. And reducing the amount of government resources subsidizing the soft drink industry, by perhaps as much as $4 BILLION /year, is not an insignificant gain for the good. Plus it hands an excellent pedagogic opportunity to the food security community and gives direct and indirect benefits to low income households.

Will some of this be replaced with cash purchases? Probably, but the food security community can be there with a massive public information campaign showing low income people how to make very tasty beverages in their own homes, from items they can buy with their SNAP benefit. Low income people are not stupid. Some of the best cooking smells I ever come across are in the hallways of low income apartments we visit. Sometimes I walk down the hall and my mouth salivates, I want to knock on doors and ask, “What are you cooking in there that smells so good?” Sometimes it is a door we are going to, and so I often ask what smells so good, and then comes the finding that it is cheap peasant food. Greens with a ham bone. Cornbread, neck bones, and beans, etc. Stuff you could pay a lot of money for at an upscale restaurant. Low income people will be perfectly able to cope with this, as long as the food security community is there for them with some good info.

Will some low income people get mad about this? Probably, but political awakening is not a bad thing.

Will it attach more “stigma” to the program? Well, I don’t see how it is possible to attach any more stigma to the SNAP program than already is the case. Socially, this society “looks down” on people who receive such benefits, and it is often a matter of great hypocrisy since the ones picking at the specks in others eyes themselves posses gigantic I-beams protruding from their own eyes in the form of the many ways that government benefits them. Their many corporate welfares are economically beneficial, others economic benefits aren’t (ignoring all the evidence to the contrary). If I could wave my magic fairy godfather’s wand and change that I would, but I’ve tried that already and didn’t work.

So I will settle for what amounts to a very rare thing — a decision by the government to do low income people a favor and stop subsidizing their soda pop habits. Government actions can have a pedagogic effect, and that would be an additional benefit of this change.

Thus, I see the present eligibility of soft drink purchases with SNAP benefits as itself a manifestation of structural racism. I see removing that subsidy as a matter of reducing one particular “invisible structure” in support of structural racism, environmental degradation, and lifestyle-driven health problems in our society.

Counting the benefits of this action:

(1) Ends the subsidy of one bad habit in low income communities.

(2) Ends the subsidy of some harm to the environment.

(3) Reduces the misallocation of resources in the soft drink industry.

(4) Provides an opportunity for public information and education.

(5) Sends a message to everyone, not just low income people, that soft drinks are bad for your health and bad for the environment.

(6) Stops one aspect of  government “picking on poor people”.

(7) Creates a structural incentive for home food production (making  beverages rather than buying soft drinks).

(8) Ends one subsidy (political, social, economic) of structural racism, environmental degradation, and lifestyle-driven health problems.

(9) Some of the benefits for low income people are immediate, others accrue over time.

For my money, I think the one that the soft drink industry fears the most is #5.

And I for one am not going to fight for the right of anyone to buy beverages that are toxic to their personal health, toxic to the planet’s health, and thus incredibly toxic for the future, with the taxpayers’ dollars. I want policies and politics that care for people, care for the planet, and have a care for the future.

Ending the SNAP subsidy for soft drinks is one small step in that right direction.

For an excellent survey of the history of soda pop and the food stamp program, see Soda, Surplus, and Food Stamps: A Short History by Daniel Bowman Simon.

Bob Waldrop

Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House

Oklahoma City


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