The raging debate about whether Mayor Bloomberg should or shouldn't try to stop poor people from using food stamps on soda seems to be missing an important point: It's quite likely this is never going to happen, because it seems the United States Department of Agriculture lacks the authority to approve such a change. Federal law is very specific about what can and cannot be bought with food stamps, and any exemption from these guidelines would require Congressional approval. And since most politicians are in the pocket of the beverage industry, it looks like poor Joe Sixpack (of Jolt) will be buying soda with food stamps for the foreseeable future.
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says Congress has considered adding restrictions to food stamps before, and decided against it. He tells the Times, "What you can purchase and not purchase in the food-stamp program is described in extraordinary detail by federal law." In fact, the definition of what constitutes a valid food item hasn't changed since 1977, and includes "any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption." To this day you can blow an entire stack of food stamps on Nerds and Spree and not even Mayor Bloomberg can do a damn thing to stop you.
In rejecting a proposal from the state of Minnesota to limit purchases of junk food with food stamps, the Department of Agriculture decided "that food-stamp rules would be inconsistent across state lines, and that it would perpetuate a stigma that food-stamp recipients are not capable of making buying decisions," according to the Times. But Robert Doar, the city’s human resources commissioner, argues that the New York proposal is different because Bloomberg is just seeking a two-year “waiver” to study how a ban might alter the eating habits of food-stamp recipients. Would they use the extra food stamps to buy more fruit and vegetables, or just spend it all on carbonated water, sugar, and food coloring to make their own artisanal sodas? We may never know.