exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

poverty, mayor bloomberg, and coca-cola

by Jen at 4:03 pm on 8.10.2010 | 3 Comments
filed under: rant and rage

this post started as a comment conversation on facebook, and i thought it was worth sharing here.

it’s all about new york city mayor bloomberg’s plan to ban people using food stamps from spending them on soda.

“In spite of the great gains we’ve made over the past eight years in making our communities healthier, there are still two areas where we’re losing ground — obesity and diabetes,” the mayor said in a statement. “This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment.”

although many in the public are cheering it, this initiative is problematic, to say the least. it is punitive, paternalistic, and unrealistic.

currently in almost any american grocery store, you can find a two litre of soda for under a dollar. now walk over a few aisles and take a look at the price of milk, or fruit juice. there’s simply no comparison. soda is the cheaper option by far.

the reason that soda remains so cheap, is because it is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. and the reason that corn syrup is so cheap is because the government pays for it. it is the very height of hypocrisy that with the one hand the government is pumping massive amounts of money into corn subsidies that make syrupy drinks dirt cheap, and with the other hand, slapping the poorest people on the wrist for buying it.

of course, people are quick to point out that food stamps are public monies, and tap water is both healthier than soda and free from the kitchen sink. soda, on the other hand, has lots of unneeded calories and no nutritional value. and also, shouldn’t we be encouraging healthy choices by the poorer population, who have disproportionately higher rates of obesity, diabetes, etc.?

they’re right of course. tap water is free and healthy. i, however, don’t drink it. i don’t drink water because i don’t like it, and as someone who is not subsisting on public generosity, i get to make that choice without any public critique because i’m rich enough to not have the morality police breathing down my neck. no one looks askance at the 12 litres of soda i buy weekly. no one tells me i should be buying milk or drinking water instead. it is only the poor who have their food choices scrutinised by government, it is only the poor who are restricted to choices that we deem nutritionally worthy. and where does it end? pop tarts are nutritionally worthless as well. so is ice cream. so are chips. so is table sugar. some “juices” are actually far worse than sodas in terms of sugar and calories. yet these are not coming under fire – soda is a completely arbitrary political soapbox.

but it’s *public money*. surely by accepting public money, you agree to sacrifice some level of personal choice?

i don’t know – does trying not to starve mean you forfeit your right to a little human dignity? does it mean that you agree to a level of paternalistic intercession by the state which no one else is subject to? people are not poor by choice, and they’re generally already further punished by substandard housing, substandard education, and substandard healthcare. so we’re not bothered that our tax monies pay to warehouse people in conditions you wouldn’t let a dog live in, and that our tax monies pay for a school system that cranks out barely literate 18 year olds (let alone being able to budget, shop for, and prepare balanced meals) – but *god forbid* people buy soda!!

soda is a bandaid on a cancer. soda is something we can easily demonise and easily deal with. soda is something that makes us feel like we are doing something, without ever addressing any of the root causes. people who live in a state of food insecurity biologically crave immediate, palatable, calorific foods – in other words, junk. but we tell them, no – if you’re poor enough to need food stamps, you can’t buy a coke. not on our dime.

we can get all righteous about people on food stamps buying soda, without ever having to examine why people in the richest country in the world are on food stamps to begin with.

this initiative is not about actually *improving* poor people’s health. if that were the point, they’d do something about making sure you could get fresh vegetables in all inner city areas (you can’t), or making sure that the free lunch program didn’t serve processed junk foods (it does), or making sure that urban kids had safe open spaces to play outdoors and didn’t have pollution-induced asthma.

but health is a performance which expected of poor people (and other groups), not for their benefit, but for ours. their health belongs to the wider culture and society at large, and if they do not perform as expected, it is considered a moral failing. they receive public monies – they are expected to be healthy.

and if the point were actually about improving *everyone’s* health, then they’d just ban or heavily tax soda for everyone. which i wouldn’t like either, but at least it would be fair.

yes, poverty and poor health are desperately intertwined. but it’s not because of soda.

the other thing to consider? the profile of people on food stamps is changing. a lot of people on food stamps these days are not the most impoverished in society – they’re people who’re having a difficult time keeping food on the table because they’ve been laid off, or lost their house in the recession. they’re trying to scrape by, and ending up short of cash at the supermarket checkout. they’re not on the lowest economic rung of the ladder – they’re trying to avoid falling off the one’s just above. these days, in this economic climate, it could just as easily be you or i who find ourselves struggling and hungry. now think about telling me, or your neighbour, that we can’t buy a soda. society makes assumptions and judgments about people on benefits that they would never make if they knew the reality, and that gives them license to act in paternalistic ways that they would never accept for themselves. the general public gets to have an extra slice of cheesecake after a stressful day – someone on food stamps can’t buy themselves a mountain dew.

let’s call this what it is: punishing people for being poor, assuming that because they need handouts they are moral failures and that they are unable/unwilling to make healthy choices, and therefore making those choices for them – even when they are not healthy choices the general public themselves make. because the proportion of people on food stamps who are overweight and drinking too much soda is only a small slice of what is a huge national pie.

ultimately this is a public policy based on *one thing* – it is making an entirely ineffectual and symbolic stand against *one choice*. it’s like looking at the scraps of the thinnest security blanket we choose to give people who don’t have enough to eat, and arguing over *one thread* of it. and i’m not willing to argue over one thread when the real problem is the size of the blanket, or even more critically, the need for the security blanket in the first place.

so when you sit at your desk in the morning with a diet cola, or need a noon caffeine pick-me-up, or are thirsty after a long day at work, imagine finding yourself on food stamps and pouring yourself a nice big glass of tap water instead. think about how important that cola you’ve just been deprived of becomes – not because it’s that important in the grand scheme of things, but because mayor bloomberg said you can’t have it.

3 people like this post.


  • 1

    Comment by Sarah

    8.10.2010 @ 18:37 pm

    Here here! My head is aching for nodding so vigorously at this post!

  • 2

    Pingback by Noble Savage » Blog Archive » Really Striking Stuff (RSS): A round-up

    8.10.2010 @ 20:36 pm

    [...] Poverty, Mayor Bloomberg and Coca-Cola at Jen’s Den of Iniquity. Why barring those on food stamps from buying soda is hypocritical, unrealistic and just plain ridiculous. [...]

  • 3

    Comment by daddio

    11.10.2010 @ 05:03 am

    i agree…and they should also reverse the prohibition on using foodstamps for beer and cigarettes.
    people who give someone free money have the right to decide what it can or cannot be used for. remember when you got lunch money….you were suppose to buy lunch with it. of course food stamp recepients can buy soda…just with cash, if that is what they choose to spend there money on.
    of all the injustice in the world, this just isn’t one of them.

RSS feed for comments on this post