Restricting food stamp users from buying soda with their benefits is an idea sparking debate in Oakland, where City Hall officials, food policy advocates and food stamp users are far from consensus on whether a ban would hurt or help the city’s poor.
The dispute was reignited in June when Mayor Jean Quan joined 17 other mayors across the country in signing a letter to Congress expressing support of a potential ban on buying soda from CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program. The letter was addressed to Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“… This generation of American children is the first to face the possibility of a shorter life expectancy than their parents,” the mayors wrote. “It is time to test and evaluate approaches limiting SNAP’s subsidization of products, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, that are contributing to obesity.” (SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the name of the federal government’s food benefit program.)
But since the federal government regulates the food stamp program, cities don’t have the power to impose a ban. Cities can only pressure federal government officials through such letters and lobbying efforts, to restrict food stamp benefits.
The Alameda County Public Health Department has supported a “Soda Free Summer” campaign for six years, but officials at the forum said they have not taken any position on a proposed ban on purchases with food stamps. For its part, the American Beverage Association, a trade group, has repeatedly challenged studies that suggest a correlation between soda consumption and obesity and diabetes.
At the Brookins AME Church in East Oakland, food stamp recipients and advocates passionately spoke out against a potential ban on soda at a recent forum sponsored by a food advocacy nonprofit.
“I take offense at the idea that someone else knows what’s best for me,” said Starla Gay, who enrolls people in CalFresh at the Alameda County Social Services Agency. “I was once a poor person, I used to be on food stamps. I don’t need a politician to make assumptions about me and enforce their thoughts of what’s best for me.”
Other speakers at the late-September forum said that a soda ban could lead to more restrictive prohibitions in the future, and worried that placing restrictions on food stamps could deter people in need from enrolling in CalFresh.
One early supporter of a soda ban said that the views expressed at the forum changed her perspective.
“I myself have been staunchly in support of not being able to purchase sodas and sugary beverages with the EBT (food stamp) card,” said Kelly Carlisle, a CalFresh recipient who heads Acta Non Verba, an urban farming organization for school kids in East Oakland.
“I learned from that meeting different perspectives,” Carlisle said.
“It’s true that when things start getting taken away, … it doesn’t stop at just one thing. I think that it’s probably not the government’s job to tell people what they should or should not eat,” she said.
The Oakland Food Policy Council, a central platform for food advocacy, co-sponsored the forum in East Oakland to gather public comment about the potential ban. Council director Esperanza Pallana said the council has not taken an official stance on a soda ban, but she was surprised by the strength of opposition.
“I genuinely had no idea what the opinion was going to be,” Pallana said. “But there’s this implication felt by the beneficiaries of these programs that they’re not making the right choices when they feel the opposite. They have to be very careful about what they’re buying. For somebody in a difficult situation, they don’t want to be treated like a child.”