Late last week, the USDA informed Mayor Bloomberg that the Department has rejected the city’s proposal to bar New York City’s food stamp recipients from buying soda and other sugary drinks with their benefits.
Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, said in a statement that the United States Department of Agriculture

“has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions that are better suited for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals” who rely on food stamps. “We are confident that we can solve the problem of obesity and promote good nutrition and health for all Americans and stand ready to work with New York City to achieve these goals.”

The city’s proposal was the latest in Bloomberg’s decade-long nanny state crusade to transform city residents into healthier beings. He succeeded in banning smoking indoors and in public parks, barring restaurants from cooking with trans fats and requiring them to post calorie counts.
On the heels of the USDA determination, the city rushed out a new Health Department study allegedly showing soda-drinking patterns correlate closely with income levels and neighborhoods – as does eating arugula, sunbathing, and visiting the Hamptons.
In an AP report, Jessica Shahin, associate administrator of the program, wrote that the proposal lacked clear product eligibility guidelines, didn’t take into account the burden that might be placed on city food retailers and failed to put forward a credible design for evaluating the effect on obesity and health.
In an October 2010 letter to the USDA, I wrote that Mayor Bloomberg’s unscientific social experiment was based on unfounded assumptions which would have produced an outcome without redeeming scientific or public health value. I am gratified that the USDA came to the same conclusion.
The mayor sought to achieve administratively what he and then-Governor Paterson failed to achieve when the State Legislature rejected the soda tax in 2009 and 2010.
In 2010, the Paterson/Bloomberg “sugar tax” would have increased working families’ grocery bills by $450 million.
Instead of “nanny state” policies focusing on our waist-lines, Bloomberg would do better focusing on access to and consumption of healthy foods by low-income city residents and the resulting diet-related health outcomes. Establishing more green markets and working with grocers to stock healthier, low priced foods would be more effective and less intrusive on personal behavior.
Ex abusu non arguitur in usum should be (“the abuse of a thing is not an argument against its use”) Bloomberg’s guiding maxim before he proposes any more “nanny state” policies.
The text of my October 26 letter to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is printed in full below:
Dear Secretary Vilsack –
I am writing in opposition to the joint waiver request submitted by the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA) and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) for a two year demonstration project excluding sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of allowable purchases by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants in New York City. The demonstration project is consistent with the City of New York’s comprehensive efforts to improve the nutrition of all New Yorkers, including low-income households. However, I oppose the waiver request and demonstration project because it does not rely on any relevant health data or scientific evaluation methods to assess the project’s impact. The applicants simply propose to exclude sugared beverages from the SNAP eligibility list. Despite citing concerns about malnutrition, obesity and diabetes among low-income people, the applicants only wish to test whether restrictions on SNAP purchases would effectuate changes in purchasing and consumption behavior. On its face, the application seems disingenuous. New York State and city leaders want to achieve administratively what they failed to achieve with the proposed soda tax earlier this year. The State Legislature rejected the soda tax for good reason.
According to the best scientific evidence available, the demonstration project 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 writers of the waiver request should know that correlation is not causation. The proposed demonstration project does not feature a control group to determine if the proposed intervention is successful.  This will result in an unscientific social experiment based on unfounded assumptions, which will produce a report with no redeeming scientific or public health value.
Nowhere does the proposed demonstration project discuss or outline an evaluation methodology that measures the effect of reduced consumption of sugared beverages on rates of obesity or diabetes among SNAP participants. The White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity report called for research identifying the relationship between access and con­sumption of healthy foods, as well as the causal links between access and diet related health outcomes.1 This important question as posed by the White House is not addressed by the demonstration project. The evaluation process will only consist of telephone surveys, cash register data, and customer exit and receipt surveys. The waiver’s evaluation methodology as written does not even successfully advance Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg’s social engineering agenda.
Secondarily, I remain concerned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has not resolved its 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 the applicant seeks to ban. And, as the applicant points out, there are contradictions in the USDA’s nutrition programs.2 These contradictions between and among USDA programs should be reviewed before any initiative to restrict sugar-sweetened beverages is considered.  I support the White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity recommendation of a comprehensive review of all programs that interact with the SNAP program to study the impact of banning sugar-sweetened beverages.  And I urge the USDA to complete that comprehensive review with all deliberate speed.
After reviewing New York State’s waiver proposal, I strongly recommend that the United States Department of Agriculture reject this proposal.  New York City SNAP recipients should not be used as test subjects in an unscientific demonstration project that does not determine, with measurable outcomes, 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. This is an important public policy matter best resolved by President Obama and the Congress of the United States.
Assemblyman Michael Benjamin
Read my previous blog postings “Will A Soda Ban Resolve the Bronx Paradox” and  “Will The Nanny State Trump Free Will Individualism” for more perspectives on Bloomberg’s effort to ban soda purchases.
In City DOH Emails Reveal Dispute Over Science of Anti-Soda Ad, the NY Times reports that there was dissension over the scientific accuracy in claiming that sugar turns to fat in the body. The DOH’s chief nutritionist said that the notion was absurd and that scientists would “make mincemeat of us.”