Bronx Paradox” which describes the odd, simultaneous occurrence of both hunger and obesity afflicting low-income residents of the South Bronx. But is it really as paradoxical as the Times reported. The Times reported that low-income residents claim that they often go one or two days without eating. They also report patronizing local food pantries. Well-meaning anti-hunger activists tell the media that poor communities (e.g., the South Bronx) are veritable food deserts. They submit earnest neighborhood surveys revealing that quality supermarkets are few and far between. Apparently, these unassailable facts prove the existence of hunger in the South Bronx.
Perhaps, low-income people purchase inexpensive high calorie, energy dense, processed foods that don’t have positive nutritional value. Nutritionists assert that poor children are consuming too much soda, chips and fast food. City pediatricians report that childhood obesity is increasing along with Type II diabetes. But many of these same children qualify for nutritious free or reduced priced school breakfast and lunch, summer breakfast and afterschool meals, where offered. Federal data reveal that these feeding programs are beneficial in reducing hunger and improving nutrition. This appears equally paradoxical.
Recently, at the direction of Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg, the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA) and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) proposed a two year demonstration project dropping sugar-sweetened beverages, i.e., soda, from the list of allowable purchases by food stamp participants in New York City. For years now, the Bloomberg Administration has implemented efforts aimed at improving the health and nutrition of all New Yorkers, including low-income households. Our State and city leaders want to achieve administratively what they failed to achieve with the soda tax proposal earlier this year. The State Legislature rejected the soda tax for good reason.
According to the best scientific evidence available, the soda ban 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 drafters of the soda ban should know that correlation is not causation.
The White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity called for new research identifying the causal links between access to nutritious food and diet-related health outcomes.1 The taskforce identified an important question that is not addressed by the demonstration project. The demonstration project does not outline a methodology measuring the effect of reduced consumption of soda on obesity rates or diabetes among food stamp recipients. The evaluation process will only consist of telephone surveys, cash register data, and customer exit and receipt surveys. This will result in an unscientific social experiment based on unfounded assumptions, producing a report with no redeeming scientific or public health value.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the federal food stamps program, has not resolved its own 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 New York seeks to ban. And, as the state’s proposal points out, there are even contradictions within the USDA’s nutrition programs.2 The apparent contradictions between and among USDA programs should be reviewed before any bans on sugar-sweetened beverages are considered. The White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity recommended a comprehensive review of all USDA programs that interact with the food stamps program and assessing the impact of banning sugar-sweetened beverages.
As concerned as we are with escalating rates of obesity and hunger, city food stamps recipients should not be used as test subjects in an unscientific demonstration project that fails to determine 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. The USDA should begin its comprehensive review of all its food subsidy and nutrition programs with all deliberate speed. Conflicts within our nation’s food and nutrition programs are important public policy matters best resolved by President Obama and the Congress of the United States. The Bronx paradox won’t be resolved by a ban on soda. Full employment, a living wage and access to healthcare will enable low-income households to take control of their health and diets.
1 Report of the White House Taskforce on Childhood Obesity, May 2010, pp. 61-63.
2 Healthy NY Food Stamp Demonstration Proposal, October 2010, pp. 3, 6.