Will A Soda Ban Resolve the Bronx Paradox?

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the “Bronx Paradox” which describes the odd, simultaneous occurrence of both hunger and obesity afflicting low-income residents of the South Bronx. But is it really as paradoxical as the Times reported. The Times reported that low-income residents claim that they often go one or two days without eating. They also report patronizing local food pantries. Well-meaning anti-hunger activists tell the media that poor communities (e.g., the South Bronx) are veritable food deserts. They submit earnest neighborhood surveys revealing that quality supermarkets are few and far between. Apparently, these unassailable facts prove the existence of hunger in the South Bronx.

Perhaps, low-income people purchase inexpensive high calorie, energy dense, processed foods that don’t have positive nutritional value. Nutritionists assert that poor children are consuming too much soda, chips and fast food. City pediatricians report that childhood obesity is increasing along with Type II diabetes. But many of these same children qualify for nutritious free or reduced priced school breakfast and lunch, summer breakfast and afterschool meals, where offered. Federal data reveal that these feeding programs are beneficial in reducing hunger and improving nutrition. This appears equally paradoxical.

Recently, at the direction of Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg, the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA) and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) proposed a two year demonstration project dropping sugar-sweetened beverages, i.e., soda, from the list of allowable purchases by food stamp participants in New York City. For years now, the Bloomberg Administration has implemented efforts aimed at improving the health and nutrition of all New Yorkers, including low-income households. Our State and city leaders want to achieve administratively what they failed to achieve with the soda tax proposal earlier this year. The State Legislature rejected the soda tax for good reason.

According to the best scientific evidence available, the soda ban will have no impact on the obesity rate. The rationale behind the proposed initiative is based on observational studies that have shown that obese people are more likely to drink sugared beverages, and that sugared beverage consumption has increased in recent decades. Ipso facto, the obesity rate has increased because Americans are drinking more sugared beverages. The drafters of the soda ban should know that correlation is not causation.

The White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity called for new research identifying the causal links between access to nutritious food and diet-related health outcomes.1 The taskforce identified an important question that is not addressed by the demonstration project. The demonstration project does not outline a methodology measuring the effect of reduced consumption of soda on obesity rates or diabetes among food stamp recipients. The evaluation process will only consist of telephone surveys, cash register data, and customer exit and receipt surveys. This will result in an unscientific social experiment based on unfounded assumptions, producing a report with no redeeming scientific or public health value.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the federal food stamps program, has not resolved its own internal mission conflicts. The USDA administers 15 federal nutritional assistance programs. The USDA also subsidizes various crops through several agricultural assistance programs. Those programs include subsidies for corn, which in syrup form is used in the sugar-sweetened beverages that New York seeks to ban. And, as the state’s proposal points out, there are even contradictions within the USDA’s nutrition programs.2 The apparent contradictions between and among USDA programs should be reviewed before any bans on sugar-sweetened beverages are considered. The White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity recommended a comprehensive review of all USDA programs that interact with the food stamps program and assessing the impact of banning sugar-sweetened beverages.

As concerned as we are with escalating rates of obesity and hunger, city food stamps recipients should not be used as test subjects in an unscientific demonstration project that fails to determine if reducing consumption of sugared beverages will improve the nutritional health of low income people. Additionally, the proposed initiative conflicts with the other mission mandates currently imposed on the USDA. The USDA should begin its comprehensive review of all its food subsidy and nutrition programs with all deliberate speed. Conflicts within our nation’s food and nutrition programs are important public policy matters best resolved by President Obama and the Congress of the United States. The Bronx paradox won’t be resolved by a ban on soda. Full employment, a living wage and access to healthcare will enable low-income households to take control of their health and diets.

1 Report of the White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity, May 2010, pp. 61-63.
2 Healthy NY Food Stamp Demonstration Proposal, October 2010, pp. 3, 6.

About SquarePegDem

A former state legislator turned NY Post editorial board member, thought-leader, public affairs consultant and commentator, columnist and blogger. Michael has appeared on Al Jazeera America Tonight, NY1/Inside City Hall, FoxNews.com LIVE, YNN/Capital Tonight, The Brian Lehrer Show, The Fred Dicker Show, The Capitol Press Room, and The Daily Show. His op-eds have appeared in the NY Post, City and State, The Legislative Gazette, Bronx Times, The Troy Record, Buffalo News, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. To schedule speaking engagements, email FOMB08@GMAIL.COM.
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7 Responses to Will A Soda Ban Resolve the Bronx Paradox?

  1. Walter Pofeldt says:

    The ban may not solve the problem entirely but the over consumption of soft drinks
    is in no way helping the situation . I don’t think scientific testing is needed to determine this simple truth . This sounds like propaganda from the soft drink industry .


  2. CA3 says:

    I’m sure there were a great many people who voiced the same arguments against the numerous increases that were made against tobacco products over the last few years. Unfortunately, as with the prohibition era, what we have seen is questionable decreases in tobacco use, and a marked increase in organized criminal involvement in the sale of “black market” tobacco products. Adding soda to the list of goods that cannot be bought with food stamps will only likely embolden sellers to charge more of food stamp recipients to acquire them with said food stamps. I have no confidence that a ban will solve the problem.

    But that begs me to ask, what exactly is the problem? Whatever it may be, obesity and poor diet are merely symptoms of it. There’s something we’ve either chosen not to see, or have been unable to see that is causing all of this. If federal agencies should be doing anything, it’s helping to identify those problems, and working to encourage communities to engage them.

    Here in the US we’re prone to comparing our country to developed nations elsewhere, whenever we talk about our problems. What we almost always forget is that we are a continent spanning nation with hundreds of millions of people living within it. Within those hundreds of millions are hundreds of variant though similar cultures. The unfortunate reality is that the conflicts within our nation’s food and nutrition programs are not ones that are likely going to be solved at the level of any Presidential administration, or Congress, without communities within the United States supporting them, and implementing them to their benefit.


  3. Bobby Allen says:

    This soda ban is about pretending that government is concerned about the health conditions of the south Bronx community. It was mayor Bloomberg that put vending machine sweet beverages in schools and city agencies. Also in Bronx Jacobi hospital lobby there is a McDonalds this does not foster good health eating in low income area of Bx. To deny a recipient of this benefit to purchase sugared beverages sends a message that he or she is being single out. This will not help south Bronx community health conition, education and employment would a better solution to prevent obesity and diabetes.


  4. Joel Berg says:

    I agree with Assemblyman Benjamin.

    This is yet another instance of America’s “do as we say, not as we do” approach towards poor people. On a legal basis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will likely be forced to reject the City’s request for a so-called waiver to enact the ban (as they have rejected similar requests in the past), because the Department has no authority to unilaterally ban foods, including soda, that are allowed in the program under federal laws previously enacted by Congress.

    Still, we should have this debate. Not only is banning soft drink purchases by food stamp/SNAP recipients telling low-income Americans that they are uniquely unsuited to make decisions about what is best for their own health, this proposed ban will fail to meet the proponents’ anti-obesity objectives. There is no evidence whatsoever that low-income people who receive these benefits shop any less nutritiously than others with similar low incomes. The problem isn’t that they make bad food choices – the problem is that they can’t afford to make healthier choices.

    A much better approach than taxing or banning so-called “junk” foods is to take action to make healthier food more affordable and available to struggling families. My group supported the Mayor’s efforts to encourage street vendors to sell fresh produce in low-income areas of New York City, and we’ve also assisted farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture projects and have worked diligently to enable more of these programs to accept SNAP benefits. We are also big supporters of food-producing community gardens. The truth is that low-income New Yorkers rally to these programs, even if they must spend limited dollars or volunteer their limited free time to do so.

    Forbidding the use of these benefits to purchase an occasional soft drink may make the non-poor feel more noble but it will fail to reduce obesity. A much fairer alternative is to increase the purchasing power of these and ensure that more stores both accept those benefits and stock healthier foods that operate in poor neighborhoods.

    Low-income people want what we all want: the ability to make their own smart choices and to improve their own lives


  5. Ronn Jordan says:

    I subscribed to your blog Michael even though you and I disagree on many issues, because I remember working with you on education issues and I have always liked you. I hope you follow/subscribe to me as well. I also have a blog here and I hope that you can be a guest on my radio show as well…Ronnagade Radio: Home of the New American Revolution (http://blogtalkradio.com/ronnagade). Have a great day and stay dry. 🙂


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