THE NO. 1 supermarket purchase by households using food stamps is soda, according to a report this week in the New York Times.
The report is based on a November study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that captured grocery store purchases of households that participate in the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as those who don't use SNAP.
The USDA analyzed grocery store purchases using data from an unnamed supermarket that tracked sales from 26 million households. It found that SNAP recipients spent 5 percent of their allotment on soda, with another 5 percent on juices and other sugary drinks. Overall, 40 percent was spent on basics such as meat, vegetables, eggs and bread, another 40 on dairy, rice and beans, and 20 percent on junk foods, candy, sugar and sweetened beverages.
Unfortunately, a report like this can be a prompt to start the general teeth-gnashing over taxpayer support for the poor. Often that teeth-gnashing is mean-spirited ("The poor are lazy, let them starve"). Other arguments are more thoughtful: Since obesity and diabetes rates driven by sugary and unhealthy eating choices have huge social and human costs, should tax-supported food stamps be limited to only healthy purchases?
We agree that there are logical arguments to restricting certain kinds of purchases with SNAP - especially since the allocations aren't overly generous to begin with: Pennsylvania households get an average of $242 a month in SNAP benefits. But we also know that these arguments often open a political Pandora's box when senators draw up bills saying that steak and lobster should be on the prohibited list, or even worse, that food stamp recipients should be subjected to drug testing.
How much does our tax support give us a say in exactly how those dollars are spent anyway? Last we checked, for example, no one asked us whether we want the sugar and corn industries to get the huge government subsidies of billions of dollars that they get each year, let alone have a say in how those dollars should be spent.
The critical fact from the USDA report is that SNAP and non-SNAP shoppers spend their money on roughly the same items. (Soda is the No. 2 item on non-SNAP shopping lists.) Generally, people using food stamps don't buy gallons and gallons of more soda than those paying cash.
And that's the problem that really needs attention: how much soda is driving our national health. While soda consumption has declined over the past decade – from a high of 54 gallons per capita in 1998 to about 40 gallons now - consider how much sugar those gallons contain: nearly about 82 cups of sugar a year, or about a cup and a half a week.
The battle over the tax just imposed in Philadelphia on sugary sweetened beverages not only illuminated this point, but showed us just how hard the beverage industry is willing to fight back on anything that could inhibit sales. (In fact, they made SNAP recipients one of the centerpieces of their legal arguments, contending that a soda tax would violate state and federal rules on SNAP purchases. The court dismissed the suit.)
The value of the USDA report is not only in underscoring how much soda is being consumed, but also how important those SNAP soda dollars are to the industry that produces it.