S.C.’s fight against obesity

Would soda ban help end obesity in SC?

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 31, 2013 

  • Food stamp limits What can be bought using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds?

    Yes: Almost all consumable food and drink products as well as seeds and plants which produce food.

    No: Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco products, pet foods, vitamins, medicines, foods that will be eaten in the store, hot foods, live animals or energy drinks with no nutritional label.

    A state would need a waiver to ban use of SNAP funds to buy sugar-sweetened drinks. New York City, for instance, was turned down when it tried to ban using SNAP funds for any drink with more than 10 calories per eight ounces other than 100 percent fruit juices and milk. That would include most non-diet soft drinks, energy drinks, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks and sports drinks.

— Seeking to slow the childhood obesity epidemic, South Carolina health leaders would like to limit the purchase of sugar-filled drinks with food stamps.

Catherine Templeton, director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, and Lillian Koller, director of the Department of Social Services, have exchanged thoughts on the subject. They agree that cutting the intake of sugary drinks could improve the health of the state’s children, but they are struggling with how to use the food stamp program as a tool in that effort, and especially with whether the federal government will allow it.

Several similar efforts, most notably by New York City, have failed to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. The feds told New York in 2011 that they agree with the goal of limiting intake of sugary drinks, but the city’s proposal had operational challenges and impacted too many people. They suggested a test program on a smaller scale.

Might South Carolina, or several counties in the state, be the right size for a test case? The state has plenty of SNAP recipients (about 875,000) and way too many obese people (about 1.6 million, based on estimates that one-third of the state is obese).

Templeton would like to see the state try something to reduce the intake of sugary beverages. She says the state and federal governments are ultimately “feeding” the obesity epidemic on the front end through the SNAP program and then spending billions on the back end in treatment for the health issues caused by obesity.

Templeton recognizes she will face opposition from the beverage industry and from people who resist any effort by the government to be food police. She isn’t trying to prevent people from buying soft drinks, just trying to stop paying for those drinks with public dollars.

“You treat your body the way you want to treat your body,” Templeton said. “But the government shouldn’t be subsidizing it.”

Templeton contacted Koller, whose agency handles the SNAP program in the state, for help with breaking the cycle of increasing obesity and increasing health care costs.

“I am charged with finding ways to address the obesity epidemic in South Carolina,” Templeton said.

Koller pointed out that the state would have to get a waiver from USDA to allow for changes in the SNAP regulations. The state would have to come up with a more focused plan than those tried by previous states. Koller suggested targeting only households with children in them.

Templeton suggested narrowing the scope with trial runs in a few counties. She has been working to bring more state resources to anti-obesity efforts in three poor counties with high rates of obesity and few anti-obesity programs – Bamberg, Fairfield and Lee. Those counties, with about 17,000 SNAP recipients, could be test cases for a ban.

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