- Associated Press - Thursday, October 7, 2010

NEW YORK | Using food stamps to buy sodas, teas, sports drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages would not be allowed in New York City under a government effort to battle obesity.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. David A. Paterson announced Thursday that they are seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the nation’s food stamp program, to add sugary drinks to the list of prohibited goods for city residents receiving assistance.

If approved, it would be the first time an item would be banned from the federal program based solely on nutritional value.

Spending government money on “foods of little or no nutritional value not only contradicts the intent of the program, it also effectively subsidizes a serious public health epidemic,” New York officials wrote in their proposal.

The idea has been suggested elsewhere, including in 2008 in Maine. The proposal drew criticism from advocates for the poor who argued that it unfairly singled out lower-income people and risked scaring off potential needy recipients.

In 2004, the USDA rejected Minnesota’s plan to ban junk food, including soda and candy, from food stamp purchases, saying it would violate the Food Stamp Act’s definition of what is food and could create “confusion and embarrassment” at the register.

New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said he thinks New York’s request has a better chance of being approved than the “skimpy” 2004 Minnesota program because it focuses only on beverages.

He said it also has the advantage of being a temporary program with an evaluation plan to study its effectiveness.

USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee said Thursday that the agency received the proposal and will consider it.

The food stamp system, launched in the 1960s, serves about 40 million Americans per month and does not currently restrict any food item based on nutrition.

Recipients can essentially buy any food for the household, although there are some limits on hot or prepared foods. Food stamps also cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes or items such as pet food, vitamins or household goods.

The ban would apply to any beverage that contains more than 10 calories per 8 ounces, except for milk products, milk substitutes such as soy milk and rice milk, and fruit juices without added sugar.

A 20-ounce sugar-sweetened drink can contain the equivalent of as many as 16 packets of sugar.

Some New Yorkers who receive the assistance said officials had good intentions but felt the proposal went too far.

“I can see the sodas, but suppose somebody’s in bad shape and they just want juice?” said Harold Vilson, a 56-year-old Brooklyn resident who said he uses food stamps.

“If people want to buy that stuff, they should be able to. If it’s not an illegal product, they should be able to buy what they want to buy.”

The program would be temporary, so officials could study its effects over two years. It would apply only to food stamp recipients in New York City — 1.7 million of the city’s more than 8 million residents — and would not affect the amount of assistance they receive.

“Sugar-sweetened drinks are not worth the cost to our health, and government shouldn’t be promoting or subsidizing them,” said Mr. Bloomberg, who also has outlawed trans fats in restaurant food and has forced chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.

In fiscal 2009, New Yorkers received $2.7 billion in food stamp benefits and spent $75 million to $135 million of that on sugary drinks, the city said.

Officials said stores that participate in the food stamp program would be responsible for enforcing the ban. They acknowledged that food stamp users could travel outside city limits to buy the prohibited drinks.

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