President Obama recently announced his intention to restrict what can be sold in private vending machines at public schools as a way to address the obesity crisis among children and youth.
This comes after the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, issued new school meal guidelines in January that require increased amounts of healthy foods to be served.
The USDA has always restricted recipients of its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children to purchases within a prescribed, nutritionally based food package.
But these nutrition concerns don't apply to the Food Stamp Program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The nation's largest "nutrition" program, SNAP supported more than 44 million individuals at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $72 billion in 2011 -- including 3 million recipients in New York receiving over $5 billion annually.
The White House and the USDA can't seem to make up their minds about whether they support healthy nutrition. Late last year, they denied a demonstration project in New York City that would prevent spending food stamp dollars on unhealthy foods.
It's time to rethink the administration's double standard on nutrition.
In August 2011, the USDA rejected New York's demonstration request, submitted jointly by then-Gov. David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to ban the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages in New York City with SNAP funds.
SNAP allows and, ironically, encourages the purchase of such unhealthy products. This is because SNAP purchases cannot be taxed, so that liter of soda is less expensive for SNAP recipients than for other consumers.
Numerous organizations and individuals supported the demonstration request for one overriding reason: These beverages are among the leading contributors to childhood obesity and the resultant plague of diabetes so prevalent in poor and minority communities.
The project would also have included a rigorous evaluation component to determine if consumption was reduced when purchases were not subsidized.
Valuing entitlement ahead of health concerns, anti-hunger advocates, supported by the beverage industry, howled that the prohibition would "stigmatize" recipients by limiting free choice.
But the demonstration was far from a "nanny state" approach -- instead, it attempted to address a major public health problem brought on by excess sugar consumption.
The stigma charge is hollow, anyway, because stores already disallow, at the checkout register, certain purchases not covered by SNAP -- alcohol, tobacco, paper products and prepared foods, for instance.
Sadly, the USDA caved to the advocates, ignored the public health implications, and, with the administration's blessing, denied the demonstration project -- effectively ensuring ongoing health problems for the poorest children in New York City.
As a result, taxpayers will get hit twice: SNAP will continue to support purchases of sugared beverages, and more taxpayer dollars will be spent through Medicaid to treat resultant obesity-related health problems such as diabetes.
Washington's rejection was made easier by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's silence on the demonstration project after he took office, even though his Department of Health views obesity prevention as a priority.
SNAP faces federal reauthorization by September 30, 2012. Resubmitting the project this year would put the issue back on center stage and send a clear message to Obama and Congress to consider limiting the allowable SNAP food package, at least as it relates to sugared beverages.
Government cannot rail against obesity on one hand while using public funds to underwrite the problem on the other.
Allowing SNAP dollars to be spent on unhealthy products is a thumb in the eye to taxpayers, and undermines public trust that their money is being spent wisely on this important safety net program.
Russell Sykes is a senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a project of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.