New York, San Francisco at the Cutting Edge in War on Obesity

Two interesting developments that caught our attention this week, one from each coast.

In California:

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee voted 3-0 in favor of an ordinance to limit toy giveaways in children’s meals that have excessive calories, sodium and fat. If the measure passes a vote of the full Board in the coming weeks, San Francisco will become the first city in the nation to take such action. read more…

And in New York:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg  sought federal permission on Wednesday to bar New York City’s 1.7 million recipients of food stamps from using them to buy soda or other sugared drinks.
The request, made to the United States Department of Agriculture, which finances and sets the rules for the food-stamp program, is part of an aggressive anti-obesity  push by the mayor that has also included advertisements, stricter rules on food sold in schools and an unsuccessful attempt to have the state impose a tax on the sugared drinks. read more…


These measures would have seemed unfathomable just 10 or 20 years ago. They could even be deemed anti-constitutional: why would the (local) government want to intervene in people’s food and beverage choices? Or in McDonald’s Corporation Happy Meal kiddie loyalty program?

But when you read the current obesity stats, you realize something’s gotta give. With 40% on New York City kids overweight or obese, and the national average hovering around 30% (and growing) we are in a size-able state of emergency.

We like the San Francisco measures because junk food and fast food companies are tempting our kids with branded toys to get them to pressure parents to buy their unhealthy and fattening food. Great profit making tactic, but really annoying if you are a parent. Yes, it’s true, happy meals do have one healthier option with sliced apple for dessert. But the small fraction of healthy options that are actually purchased by consumers are proof that the meat of the business is selling obesity causing crap to families.

Regarding New York’s food stamps, we have an uneasy feeling on this matter. On the one hand it doesn’t make sense for taxpayer money to support the purchase of obesity causing soft drinks. But on the other hand, it stigmatizes people who are already unfortunate enough to be needing food stamps in the first place. It would be much wiser to create a positive incentive and subsidize the healthier foods in the supermarket for this population, than to tell people what they are not allowed to buy.

Regardless, we commend the bold steps that are generally in the right direction. They are adding more and more critical mass to a revolution in this country’s entire food system.

A revolution that prioritizes healthy eating habits over fast ultracheap junk.

A revolution that transfers subsidy money from corn and soy to fruits and vegetables.

A revolution where spending time in the kitchen preparing a meal is back in vogue.

A revolution that will slim down our kids.

A revolution that can’t arrive a moment too soon.

(Thanks Markie McBrayer for the hat tip on SF’s vote.)

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  • Steve

    “it stigmatizes people who are already unfortunate enough to be needing food stamps in the first place.”

    Really? The reason you oppose taxpayer subsidies for sugar drinks is they can’t afford sugar drinks otherwise?

    I see it this way: Should taxpayers, thinking they’re addressing the problem of hunger in the U.S., pay for food with no nutritional value? When you look at the intent, using of them for sugar drinks makes about as much sense as using them for tobacco.

    • Editorial Staff

      problem is that coke is not a cigarette. People eating healthfully can have a soft drink here and there and live long healthy lives. Can’t say the same about tobacco.

  • Brian

    Who says you can’t have 1 cigarette a day and be healthy? I think sugar is as bad as the next guy (probably more so), including all its wonderful cocaine and heroin addiction properties. That being said, these moves are beyond hypocritical of our government. First, they promote a diet (food guide pyramid) that promotes disease and obesity. Then they turn around and want to ban companies from selling and promoting them? Give me a break. If McDonald’s or Coca-Cola go out of business because market demand disappears, then too bad for them. But if they lose business (or go out of business) because of government intervention (beyond the hypocritical regulations) that is stupid.

    Sounds to me that you don’t give people enough credit; maybe they’re too dumb to decide on their own, so government regulation is the answer. Why not take a step back and have the government admit that the food guide pyramid is a joke? Sugar is bad. Fat is not as bad as they said. And on…

    What about the unintended consequences? Let’s just say sugar consumption goes down by 50%. What are we going to do with all the extra? What about the subsidies?

  • Steve

    My point wasn’t “which is worse for you.” My point was that both tobacco and soft drinks provide zero nutritional value, so both do zero in terms of food stamp’s intent: addressing hunger.

  • nicole comeau

    it isnt the food get these kids some exercise, my kids could eat a happy meal a day and still not be fat, why they would walk there and back, sugar and calories arent bad they are natural ways of aquiring energy. The prob is you have to use the energy. Make all suv’s illegal bet that would put a dent on obesity. oh and i wont mention on green house gasses.

  • Heidi

    I recieve food assistance and I can say I support New york trying to do that. I am not so sure it will go through but honestly, people shouldnt be able to buy something like soda that has absolutely no nutritional value whatsoever with government aid. Aid is a great thing and it helps many people but really it should have some tighter rules. I am not saying that because I do not drink soda either because I do enjoy one once in a while but that is a luxury item that should have to be paid for out of pocket and not the pockets of the tax payers.

  • Carolyn @ lovinlosing

    I have to say I completely agree with NYC’s measure for food stamps. I’ve often thought food stamps shouldn’t be allowed to be used for junk food like chips, soda, or candy like I see people using it at 7 eleven here in Virginia. In CA last week, I was appalled to see that Food Stamps could be used at Fast Food restaurants! Here in Virginia you can’t buy hot food with food stamps. I’m already helping to pay for the food stamp recipient’s food, I don’t want to have to pay for their healthcare down the road, too.

  • Bill

    I like the NYC idea, but not SF. Tax payers, via elected officials, have a right to limit where and how public money is spent. An appropriate food stamp program should be designed to provide people with the proper calories and nutrition to keep them healthy.

    As for SF, do we really want to go down that road? Consumers should have a right to eat what they want, EVEN IF IT IS BAD FOR THEM. What’s next: butter tax, salt tax, all fatty foods in plain B&W packaging? This road leads to bad places.

    Also, I highly doubt parents are going to stop buying crappy “food” if it doesn’t have toys. In those situations the parent has already made the decision to buy crappy “food.” The toy, via the child, will only influence where the crappy “food” is purchased.

  • The Table of Promise

    I agree with Steve, Brian and Heidi. This action does not stigmatize anyone. Virtually everytime a person who receives food stamps shops they have a total for food stamp elligible purchases and non elligible purchases. One amount will get smaller and the other larger. And if someone complained to me that they can’t afford to drink soda without the food stamps, well then so much the better. I live in NYC and alot of public money is spent supporting a healthy water supply. Tap water here tastes good, and it’s free. Filter fine if that’s your thing, but the city provides a free drink that is inavluable to every person in the city free of charge. I don’t think some of us need to get free soda on top of that.

    Besides, Why can’t we view soda as a prepared food? When was the last time you cooked with it? And don’t give me some BS recipe for coca-cola cake, you know you haven’t made that in like 25 years.

  • The Table of Promise

    Oh, and I am beginning to think that sugar may be as bad for us as cigarettes, but virtually impossible to pinpoint. Read: Suicide by Sugar by Nancy Appleton.

    And don’t forget, HFCS and Sugar are also supported by the government through farm subsidies…Oh, don’t even get me started.

  • Cactus Wren

    Oh, lord. Cue the Soylent Foodstamps crowds, sitting comfortably in their privileged suburban walled enclaves — pardon me, gated communities and gasping with shock and outraged horror that Poor! People! are actually daring to buy their children something tastier and more interesting than oatmeal and boiled potatoes.

  • Steve

    @Cactus They’re free to buy unhealthy food, just not with somebody else’s (my) money. Which is exactly why I think NYC: Support. SF: Oppose.

  • The Table of Promise

    Actually Cactus, oatmeal and boiled potatoes would serve them well as they are both whole foods.

  • Ken Leebow

    I recommend a strategy other than beating up on McDonald’s. While people in the health, diet, and lifestyle community love to use McDonald’s as the model for all things bad, it’s stock is near and all-time high – .

    What does that mean? Business is good and people love its product. Yes, it’s junk, crap, and horrific food, but before it’s too late, a new strategy needs to be identified because Ronald and Co. are laughing all the way to the bank.

    Ken Leebow

  • Dave

    I’ve got no problems with not letting people buy soda with food stamps. I think we have a duty to feed the hungry. But using taxpayer money to subsidize non-nutritional junk is a colossal waste of money.

  • Dave Schy

    Funny that food stamps came up today. I just posted a great recipe and happy food stamp story a few days ago on my website. All is not lost!

  • Gillian

    ummm… i’m not sure when the last time you checked was, but they DON’T use the food pyramid anymore…..

  • Gillian

    Oh, also;
    “It would be much wiser to create a positive incentive and subsidize the healthier foods in the supermarket for this population, than to tell people what they are not allowed to buy.”

    that is a crock. we wouldn’t be telling them they can’t buy it…. we’re just telling them they can’t buy it on our dime.
    its kind of similar to a parent telling their child that yes, they CAN have a particular toy, they’re just not going to buy it for them.

    one last point: I don’t think there is anyone in our country that is ignorant to the fact that fast food is unhealthy. If they don’t care enough about themselves to make healthy choices, let them eat fast food, let them be obese, and let them pay for two seats on an airplane. People are going to do what they want to do. It’s human nature. You can tell them Mc Donalds is terrible for them until you’re blue in the face….. and the 12,000th time isn’t going to make any bigger of a difference than the 1st time.

  • Gillian

    @nicole comeau

    just because you’re not fat doesn’t mean you’re healthy. exorcise does the body a great service, but if you eat happy meals every day, you’re STILL going to die of heart disease.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Some great discussion here. Part of the problem is that people equate health to weight. That’s a misconception. I like the idea of this, but then when is and is not ok for government to step in?!

  • oni

    in new york city there is already an incentive program to by fresh healthful food from the farmer’s markets. you get 2$ additional “farmer’s market dollars” for every five food-stamp dollars you spend. that is a good program.

  • foodie1

    I pretty much never agree with Mayor Bloomberg, but this time, I do. Along with ‘SNAP’ (known as food stamps, and handed out as paper when I worked in community nutrition), people should be required to use them only on foods that provide at least SOME positive nutrition. Oh, yeah–some actual nutrition education might help, too.

  • Joe

    BTW – Technically SF was the first city to come up with this, but Santa Clara County (a county just south of SF) did so several months ago, which led the City of San Francisco to follow suit.