Jay Sjerven

A new poll commissioned by the news publication POLITICO and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shed light on public attitudes regarding restricting what beverages may be purchased using benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The poll asked whether sugar-sweetened beverages should be excluded from foods and beverages that may be purchased with SNAP benefits, and it revealed a near even divide in public opinion.

The poll comes as congressional agriculture committees are conducting hearings in Washington and across the country as they prepare to draft the 2018 farm bill. The farm bill, which is renewed every five years or so, authorizes both rural and farm support programs and the nation’s principal nutrition programs, the largest and most important of which is SNAP. In 2016, about 45.4 million people received just more than $70 billion in SNAP benefits.

The House Committee on Agriculture has conducted several hearings on SNAP to discuss whether it should be reformed in the next farm bill, and if so, how. Most hearings discussed whether there should be stricter work or related requirements placed on SNAP benefit recipients and on the extent of waste or even fraud that may be found in the program, but in February, the agriculture committee turned its attention to whether sugar-sweetened beverages should be banned from those items that may be purchased with SNAP benefits.

Soda tax
A new poll sheds light on public attitudes about whether sugary beverages should be banned from SNAP.

The hearing’s lineup of witnesses for and against banning sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP seemed to defy the current Washington condition where attitudes on virtually any given subject may be defined by party affiliation. The same was true with the results of the POLITICO-Harvard poll.

The poll found Americans were almost evenly divided over whether recipients of SNAP benefits should be able to continue to use those benefits to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages. Forty-seven per cent of all poll respondents indicated they favored excluding sugar-sweetened drinks from those foods that may be purchased with SNAP benefits while 51% said they were opposed to such a restriction.

The nearly even division of opinion remained even when poll respondents were grouped by political party identification. Forty-seven per cent of those identifying with the Republican Party favored preventing SNAP benefits from being used to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages while 52% said recipients should be able to buy such products with their benefits as they wish.

Forty-three per cent of those identifying with the Democratic Party favored banning sugary drinks from SNAP compared with 55% against. Only among those identifying themselves as politically independent was there a majority, barely, opposed to using SNAP benefits for purchasing sugary beverages. Independents split 51% in favor of banning sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP versus 48% who favored no restriction.

The ambivalence of Americans toward restricting what SNAP recipients may purchase with their benefits as reflected in the poll also found expression before the agriculture committee in February. Committee members at that time heard testimony from the American Enterprise Institute, generally regarded as a conservative think tank, suggesting taxpayer money should not be used to facilitate consumption of sugary beverages when the object of SNAP is to improve the nutrition of low-income households who find themselves in need. The argument seemed to be that it may be appropriate in this instance to restrict individual choice.

A representative of the Brookings Institute, generally viewed as a liberal-leaning think tank, voiced opposition to restricting what food items may be purchased by SNAP participants, most of whom are only temporarily in need of government assistance. That position conflicted with those of many who would identify themselves as politically progressive nutritionists who opposed the use of SNAP benefits to purchase sugary beverages or other foods they believed were unhealthful.

At the hearing, Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, chairman of the agriculture committee, pointed to a November 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture study that indicated 20c of every SNAP dollar was spent on sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar. That proportion was similar to expenditures of non-SNAP households, but more specifically, the study indicated SNAP households spent 9.3% of their grocery budgets on sweetened beverages versus 7.1% for households who do not receive benefits.

“Our goal is to provide much needed nutrition and to encourage Americans to eat healthier,” Mr. Conaway said. “To that end, this committee has historically advocated for nutrition education and healthy eating incentive programs.”