How that front-page NYT article on food stamps and soda got the data wrong—and demonized poor people

Soda is not just a vice of the poor

Soda is not just a vice of the poor

In a front-page piece for The New York Times last Friday, Anahad O’Connor reported on new USDA data comparing the types of purchases made by SNAP (commonly referred to as food stamps) households versus non-SNAP households. If you were to glance at his article, read the headline, and look at the picture accompanying it, you would assume that SNAP households are buying excessive amounts of soda as compared to the rest of Americans. Indeed, the title of the piece is, “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda,” and it sits above a picture of a shopping cart filled with soda. That narrative fits particularly well for those advocating for soda taxes and/or for placing a ban on soda purchases with food stamps.

There’s just one problem. If you look at the data in the actual report, you’ll see that its authors state the following: “Differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households were relatively limited, regardless of how data were categorized.”

In fact, the difference in soda purchasing habits between SNAP households and non-SNAP households amounts to one percentage point, with SNAP households spending five percent on sodas and non-SNAP households spending four percent. This difference hardly warrants that sensationalized headline. The real news is — and this is another quote from the report — “Across all households, more money was spent on soft drinks than any other item.” You can imagine another piece for the Times with a completely different headline: “In the Shopping Cart of American Households: Lots of Soda.” That would begin to get at the bigger picture and an even bigger story: All Americans are heavily reliant on a poor-quality, highly processed food supply that is damaging our health.

The difference in soda purchasing habits between SNAP households and non-SNAP households amounts to one percentage point.

And soda is just one piece of this picture. We can all agree that soda is not only a nutritional void but actively causes harm to our bodies. We’d all be better off completely eliminating it from our diets. What’s less clear though, is why people feel the need to simplify and demonize single food categories or ingredients in an attempt to get people to eat better. Indeed, in Philadelphia (where they have already implemented a soda tax), health commissioner Tom Farley tweeted O’Connor’s article and added the following: “Smart policy on SNAP might be able to turn around the entire obesity epidemic.” Given that there are in fact myriad factors that have lead up to our current public health crises, that’s a bit of an overstatement. And what about the fact that all Americans eat poorly, not just those on food stamps? And even if we somehow managed to eliminate soda from all Americans’ diets, what about the thousands upon thousands of other industrial food products and millions of fast food meals that most Americans eat every day?

Demonizing just one common factor in our diets is partly responsible for how we got into this mess in the first place — remember when we were told to eliminate fat and cholesterol from our diets? Following public health advice, Americans loaded up on refined carbs and sugars, and food manufacturers reformulated foods with less fat and more sugar, all of which contributed to our surging obesity rates and diabetes diagnoses.

If we are advocating for holding corporations accountable, shouldn’t we actually do that?

The Times article not only demonizes one product but also attempts to demonize the people allegedly purchasing more of it, which in this case is inaccurately reported as predominately SNAP participants. It appears that O’Connor’s intention here was to hold food and beverage industries, as well as the government, accountable to some degree. When O’Connor tweeted the link to his story on Friday, he wrote the following: “The USDA says it’s fine to subsidize soft drinks for poor Americans. Public health experts disagree.”

Okay. Two things: It is absolutely true that the food and beverage industries deserve to be held accountable. It is also true that we shouldn’t subsidize soft drinks. But, on the first point, if we are advocating for holding corporations accountable, shouldn’t we actually do that? Why are we talking about taxing consumers and enacting bans on particular products?

On the second point, if we want to subsidize sodas, we don’t need food stamps. Sodas, among many other industrial food and drink products, are already subsidized for all Americans thanks to farm subsidies, which apply to all commodity crops. Corn is the number one commodity crop produced in America. High fructose corn syrup is the key ingredient in soda. This means that the U.S. government subsidizes soda in general. Purchasing soda with food stamps simply adds another subsidy on top of that one. But why is soda so cheap in the first place? What about the rest of Americans who all purchase soda at cheap prices due to government subsidies of corn?

If we are advocating for holding corporations accountable, why are we talking about taxing consumers and enacting bans on particular products?

The demonization of people on food stamps is disingenuous and misrepresents the issue. The data do not support a significant difference in soda consumption in SNAP versus non-SNAP households. Our focus should be on demonizing the Big Food and Drink companies that flood the market with poor quality and dangerous products, and then advertise them with virtually no government regulation.

Strange how many public health experts, some of whom O’Connor quotes in his piece, fail to make these connections. They would rather tax soda or ban its purchase with food stamps, than hold the industry responsible for products that they so condemn. If we can all agree that soda, among many other types of highly processed foods and drinks, is harming our health, then why don’t we tax the corporations at the point of production? Why don’t we levy fines against companies that want to continue making poor quality foods and drinks that cause such harm to public health? Why don’t we also require labels on soda cans or other food products that warn consumers of their health hazard? And why doesn’t the government step in to say that companies cannot advertise harmful food and drink products, especially to children? These would be far more powerful steps in the name of public health policy than either imposing on consumers a regressive tax or imposing on food stamp users a patronizing ban.

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Kristin Wartman Lawless is writing her first book, Formerly Known As Food, a critical look at how the industrial food system is changing our minds, bodies, and culture. It will be published by St. Martin's Press. She has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and VICE, among many other publications.