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Food Stamp Users Outraged by Proposal to Bar Sugary Drinks

By DNAinfo Staff on October 7, 2010 3:51pm  | Updated on October 7, 2010 8:19am

By Jill Colvin and Nina Mandell

DNAinfo Reporter/Producers

MANHATTAN — Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a new target in his war against vice, but many outraged city food stamp users say he's crossed the line.

The mayor and Gov. David Paterson announced Thursday that they have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bar the 1.7 million New Yorkers who rely on food stamps from using them to buy sugary drinks, including sodas, juices, sports drinks and teas.

"Sugar-sweetened drinks are not worth the cost to our health, and government shouldn’t be promoting or subsidizing them," Bloomberg told reporters at Brooklyn's Kings County Hospital's Diabetes Resource Center Thursday, where he was joined by the governor and health officials.

The city is facing a health crisis, he warned, with diabetes on the rise and 60 percent of adults and 40 percent of children now overweight or obese. Sugary drinks are "the single biggest" factor, he said, and tax dollars should not be used to buy them.

But as news of the proposal spread, food stamp users, who spend between $75 million and $135 million on the drinks each year, expressed outraged at the attempt to control what they drink.

"That's not fair!" screamed Evelyn Padilla, 29, a self-described "Pepsi addict" who lives in East Harlem and relies on food stamps for her groceries.

"It's not right," she repeated, tears welling in her eyes. "It's food. It's a drink. It don't make no sense."

While many agreed that limiting sugary drinks is fine health advice, they said the choice of what to buy should be theirs.

"I don't understand," said Jamel Greats, 31, a father of four who frequently relies on food stamps to feed his family.

"You're taking food out of my children's mouths," he fumed.

Edwin Fernandez, 36, who manages an Associated Supermarket in East Harlem, said he's worried the ban will hurt his business, where about three-quarters of purchases are made with food stamps. If passed, he predicted soda sales would fall from 300-400 cases a week to as few as 100.

He also worried about how customer will react when they're told at the counter they have to pay cash. Already, he said, people protest when they are told they can't buy prepared sandwiches and over-the-counter drugs, which are barred along with alcohol and cigarettes.

"We'll have problems," he said. "Everybody [already] cries."

Ivan Dejesus, 43, who lives in the Bronx, said that he doesn't even drink soda, but thinks the proposal crosses the line.

"What's going to be the next thing?" he asked.

Several industry groups, including the American Beverage Association, have also criticized the proposal, saying there is nothing unique about the calories in the targeted drinks.

"This is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink, and will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it," the group said in a statement.

The move is the latest in a string of efforts by the mayor to legislate healthy living, including a recent proposal to ban smoking in public parks.

In an op-ed in Thursday's New York Times, New York City health commissioner Thomas Farley and New York state health commissioner Richard Daines defended the proposal as a much-needed intervention.

"At the least it would ensure that food stamps wouldn’t subsidize, in the name of nutrition, a product that causes obesity and a lifetime of health problems," they wrote.

A woman who drinks just one sugar-sweetened drink a day increases her diabetes risk by 83 percent, Farley said Thursday.

If the request is approved, it will be the first time a food has been banned from food stamp eligibility due to nutritional value, NBC New York reported.

A proposal from Minnesota in 2004 to ban junk food from food stamp eligibility was denied by the USDA.

New York's proposal would be a two-year test run. Gov. Paterson said he hopes the agency will act within 90 days.