Soda, Surplus, and Food Stamps: A Short History

This is a guest blog post by Daniel Bowman Simon. It appeared originally on the Huffington Post.

Lately there has been a lot of hoopla in the Big Apple about the federal food stamp program, now officially known by the snappy acronym SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.) Over 41 million Americans (and 1.7 million New York City residents) receive food stamps. In September, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked the USDA to allow a pilot program to prohibit food stamp recipients from buying non-diet soda (and other sugar-sweetened beverages) in New York City. The Mayor cited an estimate that in 2009, food stamps bought $75-$135 million worth of soda and other sweetened beverages in New York City. He noted the costly negative health impacts (such as obesity, diabetes, and malnutrition) associated with such products.

The American Beverage Association, whose members are producers, marketers and distributors of non- alcoholic beverages, immediately decried the proposal as “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 non-profit New York City Coalition Against Hunger echoed the ABA, telling the USDA that accepting the proposal would “punish low-income people” and that “there are much more effective ways to address obesity.” Andy Fisher of the Community Food Security Coalition acknowledged that banning soda for food stamp purchases raises tough questions, and recommended that the USDA grant the waiver only if they also required the City to invest in programs that would redirect the amount no longer spent on sugary beverages to more healthful purchases. Everybody, it seems, has an opinion. What to think?

The history of the Food Stamp Program is instructive. What were the food stamp program’s original goals and guidelines, and when and why were food stamp recipients authorized to use food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened beverages (a/k/a soft drinks, pop, and soda)?

A March 14, 1939 article in the Washington Post described the food stamp program as a farm recovery program — the unemployed would eat the Nation’s surplus food. Under the sub-headline “$1.50 in Food for Dollar,” the Post explained:

The plan provides the grant by the Government of $1.50 in food orders to the beneficiaries for each dollar of the WPA wages or dole money they expend. For each cash dollar, an unemployed person would get $1 in orange stamps and 50 cents in blue stamps.

Orange stamps are good for any grocery item the purchaser elects, except drugs, liquor, and items consumed on the premises. Blue stamps, however, will buy only surplus foods — dairy products, eggs, citrus fruits, prunes, fresh vegetables, and the like.

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In other words, the government was willing to subsidize food purchases by those in need, so long as those purchases made a dent in the agricultural surplus of the nation. From the inception, the government had a say in what could be purchased with food stamps. And, because surpluses change with the natural cycle of the seasons, the list was updated monthly. On September 26, 1939, the New York Times published the October surplus list:

The list, effective Oct. 1, includes butter, eggs, raisins, apples, pork lard, dried prunes, onions, except green onions; dry beans, fresh pears, wheat flour and whole wheat flour, and corn meal. Fresh snap beans were designated as surplus for Oct. 1 through Oct. 31.

Raisins, apples, pork lard and snap beans appeared on the list for the first time. Foods which will be removed from the list on Oct 1. include cabbages, fresh peaches, fresh tomatoes, rice, and fresh green peas.

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Throughout the program, truly fresh produce was the name of the game. In July 1941, at the height of the growing season, all fresh vegetables were placed on the surplus list. At the same time, “soft drinks, such as ginger ale, root beer, sarsaparilla, pop, and all artificial mineral water, whether carbonated or not,” were removed from the food stamp list, and retail food merchants were warned not to sell those items for orange stamps or blue stamps. However, natural fruit juices, “such as grapefruit, orange, grape or prune” were not considered “soft drinks” and could still be sold for orange stamps. The press did not report any kerfuffle over the removal of soft drinks from the list of items that food stamps could buy.

A 1943 New York Times blurb regarding the upcoming end of the surplus program reported that

The following foods may be obtained during the final period with blue food stamps in any eligible retail food store: corn meal, hominy grits, fresh apples, fresh grapefruit, fresh pears, wheat flour, enriched wheat flower, self-rising flour, enriched self-rising flour, whole wheat (graham) flour, dry edible beans, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes and fresh vegetables.

The announcement says that vegetables obtainable for blue stamps shall not include melons, avocados or rhubarb, or processed vegetables — frozen, canned, dried or pickled.

As World War II shifted in to high gear, crop surpluses became crop scarcities, unemployment dwindled, and the food stamp program came to a an abrupt close. (However, as Jan Poppendieck pointed out in her book Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat, “the truly unemployable needed food assistance more than ever as food prices rose sharply under the pressure of wartime scarcities.”)

Immediately after the program ended, elected officials attempted to introduce legislation for a new Food Stamp program, a futile exercise that repeated many times over the next two decades. But, by 1964, the coupling of hunger and agricultural surplus was again politically viable. Congress enacted the Food Stamp Act of 1964 “to permit those households in economic need to receive a greater share of the Nation’s food abundance.”

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The House version of the bill initially defined “eligible foods” as “any food products for human consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and foods identified as being imported from foreign sources.” The bill was amended to also exclude from purchase “soft drinks, luxury foods, and luxury frozen foods as defined by the Secretary.” The House passed their version of the bill on April 8, 1964.

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But when the conference bill went back to the Senate, the Senate removed the exclusion of soft drinks (as well as luxury foods) because they presented an “insurmountable administrative problem.” (While the insurmountable administrative problem was not defined, nor discussed in the Senate hearing, it is worth noting that the first item to bear a Universal Product Code, Juicy Fruit gum, was not scanned until ten years later, at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio on June 26, 1974.) The Senate also protested that the dictionary defined “soft drinks” as “those not containing spirituous liquor, so that milk, orange juice, coffee, and other beverages would technically be excluded.” Finally, the Senate cited studies showing that:

Food stamp households concentrated their purchases on good basic foods. For example, fruit and vegetable consumption was largely accounted for by seasonally abundant fresh items; potatoes, greens, tomatoes, cabbage, apples, and assorted citrus fruits.

Still, Senator Paul H. Douglas of Illinois expressed concern that the benefit would be used for items other than “good basic foods,” and he proposed an amendment to prohibit the use of stamps to purchase “carbonated soft drinks.” That amendment was not included in the bill that the Senate passed unanimously on August 11, 1964.

So there you have it. President Johnson signed the bill into Law on August 31, 1964. At the ceremony he said “I believe the Food Stamp Act weds the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people with the best of the free enterprise system.” With his signature, the ability to purchase soft drinks with taxpayer-funded food stamps became a reality and, forty-six years on, that reality remains the same today.
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  • Phyllis

    Government subsidies or programs of any kind are basically designed to help those in need to survive, obtain healthcare or nutrition. Nutrition necessary to survive or sustain health does not include sugary, sweetened soft drinks of any kind (or any other junk or snack food, or expensive ready-to-eat CEREALS whose main ingredients are sweeteners that need artificial vitamins added to claim nutritional value on the labels).

    SNAP should be used only for fresh or food ingredients for cooking healthy, nutritional meals. Money would be better spent educating people about how to use food stamps for cooking real food economically for their health. Guidelines and limits should be in place for the use of food stamps that exclude junk. Excluded items could be labelled on bar codes for simplicity. SNAP is a privilege to be used for real nutrition. When this money is spent on non-nutritive junk foods it will add to the healthcare costs for everyone of us down the road.

  • froggie

    Thanks for an informative and interesting post!

    One question though, as I have no clue what our current surpluses are. If we went back to the 1939 model and had food stamps focused on surplus foods again, what would that list look like today? Other posts on this blog have pointed out that HFCS is considered a surplus. Particularly during the winter when fresh vegetables are harder to come by, could we feed people healthily on surplus?

  • http://www.motherfitness.com Kellie

    @Phyllis
    Wow! Before I read this, I had the exact same thoughts. Impoverished citizens are already in a nutritional deficit. Why cater to this buy allowing the purchase of nutritionally deficit foods?

  • Gerome

    Phyllis, those are really interesting ideas — but how on earth would you administer these programs? Would you have to attend a cooking/nutrition class to get your stamps? And who’s to say where we draw the line on what’s nutritious? Sugared soda’s are a slam dunk. Now what about apple juice? (I think it’s = soda.) Okay, What about filtered cider? Better than apple juice? Unfiltered? Where’s the line? And does every retailer in the neighborhood have the hardware and software to pick the good from the bad at checkout? (Or would some of them just stop taking stamps because they’re a hassle? There’s a step in the wrong direction.)

    And, wow. SNAP is a privilege? SNAP’s a lifeline. I hope most people use it wisely. I know some will not.

    Props to Daniel for a very informative historical perspective.

  • http://www.livingitupcornfree.com kc

    I am actually a food stamp recipient and allergic to corn and soy. I buy only fresh produce and non-processed foods with my EBT card. That being said, I find it extremely scary that any government entity would be in charge of deciding what is “healthy” and therefore allowed for purchase with food stamps. I suspect that if the government got involved, I would not be allowed to purchase the few foods that are safe for me now. For example, the US govt. has long held the belief that low fat is healthier, but low fat means added corn….Full fat sour cream and whole milk yogurt are the only dairy products that I can find corn-free. Same with fortified or enriched products…..the government is the reason that dairy, salt and cereal grains are vitamin enriched. There are no enriched or vitamin fortified products that are corn-free, so the only flour safe for me (my unbleached, unfortified all purpose flour) would be disallowed. Kerrygold cheese is the only safe cheese but would it be disallowed because it is imported?

    Let’s don’t get all nostalgic about yesteryear. The food stamp program still conforms to the original ideals and functions as a way to get rid of the surplus. Carbonated soft drinks and most processed foods contain high quantities of surplus corn and soy in the form of additives, preservatives, flavor enhancers, vitamin enrichments and corn syrup. Since most food stamp recipients (just like all average Americans) spend an inordinate amount of their food budget on these processed food products, the surplus is getting used by the “beggars can’t be choosers” part of the population just like the program intended.

    Call me cynical, but I suspect mayor Bloomberg is pulling a common political trick. He comes out in favor of something knowing that it will never come to pass, therefore his constituents won’t have to suffer the consequences of it actually happening. It makes him look good because he is perceived to be “fighting the good fight”, but nothing actually changes.

  • heidi

    i happen to be a SNAP recipient as well currently and i honestly WISH that everywhere would adopt the policy of not allowing recipients to buy sugary sodas and snacks made of full sugar. Why should someone be allowed to buy candy with government benefits? I am greatful for what i get right now but i would much rather see americans putting money into food that at least carries SOME nutritional value. But then, I could say the same with TANF benefits and regulation as my old roomate used to use hers to buy things like makeup and ciggarettes

  • heidi

    and i must add, time for an update!!! i am sure back in 1964 they did not have nearly as many carbonated soft drinks and junk food items that they do today. back then, most households on food stamps were still most likely making their dinners from scratch vs many households today who choose for frozen or boxed items out of cost and convenience..

  • Lydia

    I am presently a food stamp recipient, as I am in AmeriCorps VISTA service.

    It wouldn’t bother me if they cut off sugary soft drinks, potato chips, and other obviously junky foods as long as they ADDED things like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, toilet paper, and feminine hygeine products at minimum. It’s stupid how I can afford to eat more healthfully than I ever have before but I have to be sort of revoltingly frugal with my soap and toilet paper. Here’s to healthier, less dirty poor people!

    I’d also like to request that if they remove really junky stuff they add deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, lotion, condoms, maybe simple over-the-counter things like bacitracin ointment, antifungal creams… Oh, I’d be in proper health and hygeine heaven.

  • Lydia

    Another thing… If they want people on food stamps to be healthy, HOW ABOUT LETTING US BUY VITAMINS? Food stamps don’t buy vitamins or supplements. So we can’t slam the vitamin C at the first sign of a cold, or take iron if we are getting anemic–or we want to DONATE BLOOD–No multivitamins, no folic acid vitamins for pregnant women… No B12 supplements for vegetarians that are also on food stamps… No acidophilous supplements for people trying to maintain a healthy digestive tract or for certain lady problems… Take away soda, just give us something USEFUL in return.

  • Daniel

    @froggie Surpluses are variable, in part due to weather, pests, food safety issues etc. That is precisely why the surplus list was updated regularly in the original 1939-1943 food stamp program. It made sense to help out the farmers and the fresh food was a blessing for impoverished families as well. Obviously, in the winter surpluses are scarcer, but in some cases, summer surpluses, if canned or otherwise preserved, may last into the winter. In any case, a program that favored surpluses when available would be nice, wouldn’t it!

  • Daniel

    @kc Perhaps the government could allow for medical waivers in the rare cases where something like a specific cheese is needed by a SNAP recipient? Why is there so much surplus corn and soy?

  • Daniel

    @heidi maybe you should do a guest post on Fooducate from your perspective!

  • http://www.livingitupcornfree.com kc

    @Daniel
    Are you kidding me? Government wavers to disallow corn and soy derivatives? It is not in the best interest of this government to recognize corn or soy allergies in any way. There is an entire pharmaceutical and healthcare industry invested in using corn and soy to make medicines to mask symptoms of corn and soy intolerance or allergy. Our entire economy revolves around corn and soy subsidies. This government doesn’t even recognize that corn and soy derivatives used in packaging should be disclosed to the allergic individual. This government allows genetically modified corn and soy in every processed food in America without disclosing that fact on the label (did you know baby carrots and bagged salad greens are processed foods?). That’s why I have to buy a specific cheese…..it’s the only one without GMO corn as an ingredient or in the packaging. Everyone else is blissfully ignorant of that fact and happily munching on GMO corn with every bite of cheese. I can’t even buy the fresh meat, most dairy or produce that is available in my store because the USDA allows GMO corn to contaminate it. In fact, I have to buy a cow and have it custom butchered to avoid the USDA required citric and lactic acids (GMO corn derivatives) that every other person eating USDA meat ingests with theirs (regardless of whether it is grass fed or not). I have a friend that gives me raw milk so that I can avoid the GMO corn oil in all the vitamin “enriched” dairy that is available in the grocery store (it’s used as a vitamin carrier to keep the corny vitamins suspended in the liquid).

    I don’t want to get the government’s permission to buy the foods my family needs to survive. I don’t care about sugary soft drinks or processed food crap being disallowed – I don’t buy them anyway, but we all know that it won’t stop there. There will have to be guidelines drawn up to specifically exclude those items and those guidelines will inevitably include other asinine government ideas like high grain/low fat diets. My family would starve if I had to adhere to the food safety guidelines outlined by the FDA or the USDA, much less the nutritional requirements of the ridiculous food pyramid.