A bipartisan report commissioned by Congress to help frame deliberations over the nation’s anti-hunger efforts includes a proposed reform singling out sugar-sweetened beverages for exclusion from the list of items eligible to be purchased by means of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The report, released Jan. 4 and titled “Freedom from hunger: An achievable goal for the United States,” includes 20 recommendations aimed at making federal nutrition assistance programs and initiatives more efficient.
The proposal on sugar-sweetened beverages raised the ire of the American Beverage Association, which represents the beverage manufacturing industry, but there were no other immediate comments from other sectors of the food industry.
The report was written by the National Commission on Hunger, which was established by congressional leaders of both political parties to develop recommendations on the nation’s nutrition policies for consideration by Congress and the Secretary of Agriculture. The proposals enumerated in the report had the unanimous support of all commission members.
The commission began its work in May 2014 and had several meetings, received scores of testimonies and conducted public hearings across the country. Sugar-sweetened beverages emerged as the only food category commission members agreed should be targeted in a specific recommendation.
Ten of the reports 20 policy recommendations related to SNAP. Of the 10, four aimed to strengthen the program’s encouragement of improved nutritional choices by benefit recipients. Two of the four recommendations made specific reference to sugar-sweetened beverages.
The fourth recommendation for SNAP reform was devoted exclusively to sugar-sweetened beverages.
The commission said, “SNAP benefits should help families meet their nutritional needs, not contribute to negative health outcomes through poor nutrition choices. Recent scientific evidence suggests that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, which are unhealthy, can have profound and serious negative effects on health, such as obesity and diabetes, especially among children. Reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages also follows the guidelines of leading health agencies such as the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, and the Surgeon General of the United States.
“The technology to exclude certain items already exists at the participating retail store level,” the commission explained. “In light of the research and the recommendations of numerous health agencies, sugar-sweetened beverages should be added to the list of items excluded from the allowable purchase with SNAP.”
The commission proposed as an action item that “Congress should enact legislation to restrict the purchase of a carefully defined list of sugar-sweetened beverages developed in consultation with major health and nutrition organizations (e,g,, the organizations mentioned above), nutritionists and scientific experts.”
The commission added, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture should ensure mechanisms that provide broad, understandable and culturally appropriate communication regarding this new restriction.”
Currently, the only foods, beverages or agricultural products that may not be purchased using SNAP benefits are beer, wine, liquor, tobacco, food that will be eaten in the store, hot foods and pet foods. Should the commission’s recommendation be implemented, sugar-sweetened beverages would be added to this list.
In its fifth SNAP recommendation, the commission said the U.S.D.A. should require retail stores that currently accept SNAP or apply to become a participating retailer to provide enhanced and immediately visible shelf space for healthy foods and beverages. In its “rationale” for this proposal, the commission said, “If the amount of shelf space allocated to healthy foods is increased, and shelf space for sugar-sweetened beverages and other unhealthy products is reduced, consumers are more likely to purchase healthier foods.”
In response to the commission’s proposals relating to sugar-sweetened beverages, the American Beverage Association said:
“Families who have fallen on tough times should not be discriminated against because they need temporary help affording their groceries. People using SNAP benefits make the same food-buying decisions as we all do. They don’t need government telling them which aisles they are allowed to go down and how best to serve their families.
“Allowing government to designate foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would create a food code more complicated and arbitrary than the tax code. That would put us on a slippery slope of government intrusion into many decisions that have always been left to the individual to decide.”