Perhaps the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't care about obesity after all. More accurately, it cares more about the soft drink lobby.

The agency missed a perfect opportunity to provide New York City with a waiver to test a pilot program that would have excluded sugar-sweetened soda from food stamp eligibility in New York City's five boroughs. The waiver was denied in mid-August.

The office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg released this statement on Aug. 19:



New York City Asked the United States Department of Agriculture to Exclude Sugar-Sweetened Soda from Food Stamp-Eligibility in the Five Boroughs

“We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country and at little or no cost to taxpayers.  We’re disappointed that the Federal Government didn’t agree and sorry that families and children may suffer from their unwillingness to explore our proposal. New York City will continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that affect New Yorkers and all Americans.

The New York Times reported that the USDA's cold shoulder to the waiver request was met with bitter disappointment by the city's health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley. Farley called into question "how serious" the agency is about addressing obesity and poor nutrition.

The waiver would have allowed a two-year pilot program to see if the ban would reduced obesity among food stamp recipients. USDA officials said the city's proposal was "too large and complex to implement and evaluate."  A comprehensive paper on the USDA-perceived problems with restricting SNAP food choices can be found here.

I don't buy what the USDA is selling. This is about dollars. Lots of them. No matter the merit of the waiver, soft drink companies don't want to be marginalized and eventually written out of the food stamp program.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program - the dispenser of modern day food stamps - serves more than 40 million people each month with billions of dollars of the federal treasury. Here is the 2010 annual report on SNAP.

From the report:

In Fiscal Year 2010, $64,443,517,056 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were redeemed at authorized retailers, an increase of 29 percent from the previous year. As a point of historical comparison, SNAP authorized retailers redeemed $14,983,320,706 in benefits in fiscal year 2000. The level of SNAP redemptions has increased just over 430 percent within the past 10 years.

So the level of food stamp benefits has never been higher. True the agency is working to increase the level of food stamp redemptions at farmers' markets. Consider, however, that farmers' markets only accounted for 0.18% to SNAP benefit redemptions. Superstores accounted for 49% of redemptions and supermarkets 35% of redemptions in 2010. Convenience stores account for more than 4% of redemptions.

To its credit, the USDA favors an approach that will provide "incentives" for food stamp recipients to buy healthy food like fruits and vegetables. A Healthy Incentive Pilot program is exploring what might work in that regard.

Those incentive plans sound great, but devising and testing those approaches is no simple task either.

People who receive food stamp benefits already have rules. They can't purchases tobacco or alcohol products with federal benefits, and pet food and heated foods are also excluded from benefits. If folks don't buy sugary pop with their food stamp benefits, they are more likely to buy other food, including fruits and vegetables.

From Jan. 22, 2010, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley testified before the New York Senate about the city's stance toward sugar-sweetened beverages:

Continuing with the City’s commitment to reduce the risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease, we have also launched a major campaign to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Americans consume 250-300 more calories per day than they did 30 years ago, and the increase in consumption of caloric beverages accounts for approximately one-third to one half of this increase. Beverages represented 21% of total daily energy intake in the general American population in 2002, up from 11.8% in 1965 , most of it from so-called “empty calories.” To raise public awareness, a poster campaign in the subways called “Pouring on thePounds” was launched last summer. More recently, a You-Tube video – “Drinking Fat” aired – which has been viewed by more than half a million people.

With the amount of dollars the federal budget churns through for food stamps, I certainly expect lawmakers and agency officials to engineer health outcomes with those expenditures, to try to put a finger in the dike of the nation's flood of obesity.

The New York City waiver would have been a small step toward that end, and the USDA refusal to provide it was simply old-boy politics.