FPOP Event Recap: Food Stamps and the Fight Against Obesity

What did the panelists say and what should we do about it?

Columbia FPOP

From left to right: Associate Deputy Commissioner Gary Jenkins, Ed Cooney of the Congressional Hunger Center, Mailman School of Public Health Professor Y. Clare Wang, New York Times Food Journalist Mark Bittman

FPOP was honored and amazed to have co-sponsored the last Thursday’s panel, Food Stamps and the Fight Against Obesity, with Ed Cooney of the Congressional Hunger Center, Professor  Y. Clare Wang, Associate Deputy Commissioner Gary Jenkins, and Mark Bittman. Dean Linda Fried and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley moderated and provided context for the panelists’ discussion.A video of this panel can be found here.

In 2010, Health Commissioner Tom Farley and Mayor Bloomberg requested a waiver from the USDA to begin a two-year trial restricting the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) using SNAP benefits. The request was denied one year later due to purported issues with operational complexity, scope, and lack of evidence for impact. The objective of the panel, which was open to all CUMC students, faculty, and community members, was to provide a forum for the various perspectives for and against healthier food stamps. In other words, should states use restrictive policies to decrease SSB consumption in low-income populations?

Mailman’s very own Professor Wang was involved with Columbia’s Department of Strategic Communications from the beginning on shaping this panel. Her research focuses on decision modeling and that integrates epidemiology and demography to inform policy. Her focus in this field has turned to identifying the modifiable disease risk factors of obesity and cardiovascular disease, and she has published several articles on the impact of increased SSB consumption and potential solutions.

Columbia FPOP

Panelists: Mailman School of Public Health Professor Y. Clare Wang & Mark Bittman

The need to disseminate the policy implications of scientific research for public consumption puts substantial influence in the hands of journalists and academic health writers. Mark Bittman was asked to join the panel as a cookbook author and public figure, prolific journalist, and outspoken critic of SSBs and the American Beverage Industry’s ability to influence policy makers at USDA on this issue.

Ed Cooney represented the view of some anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations, which falls in opposition to the proposal in favor of more positively reinforcing mechanisms, like education and extending the purchasing power of each SNAP dollar spent on fruits and vegetables. Restricting the purchasing power of SNAP beneficiaries by limiting their choice and potentially introducing or exacerbating perceived stigma is something that these anti-hunger organizations would like to avoid.

But, as Mark Bittman mentioned, many of our panelists suggest that soda is not nutrition –  nor is it even a food. He said sodas don’t comprise “empty calories”, but rather “bad” or “harmful” calories – and this question is extremely relevant right now considering the abundant, but inconsistent (depending on who is funding the research) evidence indicting simple sugars as important contributors to the obesity epidemic. To him, the question is: Should the government be subsidizing the purchase of non-nutritious, potentially harmful – and what some might call “food-like” – items. His answer, in line with the Mayor’s agenda, is a resounding “no.”

One of our prestigious Columbia faculty, Andrew Rundle, working on issues of obesity has said that the problem obesity is the problem of 1,000 paper cuts, and I think from Thursday’s panel, it’s easy to see that there are nearly as many potential solutions. None of which has the ability to shift the curve on obesity on its own. Yes, the increase in fructose consumption has paralleled the rise in obesity and metabolic disorders. Yes, low-income populations, particularly children, tend to drink higher amounts of soda and are disproportionately impacted by higher rates of obesity.

Columbia FPOP

From left to right: Gary Jenkins, Associate Deputy Commissioner; Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner; Ed Cooney, Congressional Hunger Center; Dean Linda Freid, Mailman School of Public Health; Professor Y. Clare Wang, Mailman School of Public Health; Mark Bittman, Food Journalist.

But we need a comprehensive solution to deal with this issue on a national scale, because it’s a national problem. Taxpayers are paying for the rising healthcare costs stemming from obesity-related chronic diseases, totaling $147 billion in 2008 alone. Unfortunately, innovative policy actions like the New York proposal or sugar taxation legislation will continue to be blocked by the food and beverage industry, who wield the money and the power to influence federal decisions impacting the health of our nation (think $13 million spent by the American Beverage Association to block NYC’s 2010 proposal to impose a tax on fructose-sweetened beverages, even though similar legislation has been passed in over 24 states so far). Institutionally-based roadblocks mean that we as public health students are given a challenge – an opportunity – to  use our training to develop and improve individual, community, and organizational-level interventions in ways that reach individuals of socioeconomic levels, ethnicities, etc.

With the First Lady’s stated mission to turn the page on obesity, I just wonder why the USDA is permitted to continually give the American Beverage Industry, and other food industry lobbyists, a stake in our nation’s health. Maybe it’s time we do something about that too.

-Jaclyn Clenney

Columbia FPOP

Panelists, Moderators and the FPOP e-board

Tell us what you think about the issue – comment below!


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