Letters from Maine

Lonely in the middle


 

Those of us who consider ourselves centrists are feeling pretty lonely right now. It seems everyone else, or at least all of the folks in Washington, have fled to the extreme political poles and left us to search for a patch of middle ground to stand on. It appears that without courageous leadership the silent majority has splintered and gravitated to the tails of what was once a bell-shaped curve.

One issue that might attract support from both sides of the political spectrum emerged from the Nov. 18, 2016, report from the United States Department of Agriculture that listed sweetened drinks as the No. 1 purchase by households participating in SNAP (“Foods Typically Purchased by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households”). The data reveal that households in this $74 billion program are spending 5% of their food dollars on soft drinks and almost 10% on sweetened beverages – soft drinks, fruit juices, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

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Several states (including Maine), dozens of other municipalities (most notably New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg), and a variety of medical groups have asked the USDA to reconsider its guidelines. Arguing that selectively banning certain items would generate too much red tape and be unfair to food stamp recipients, the department has been resistant to change (“In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda,” by Anahad O’Connor, New York Times, Jan. 13, 2017). One has to wonder how much of the department’s hesitancy is a reflection of the millions of dollars the food and beverage industries have invested in lobbying against change.

There are some ultra liberals (or progressives if you prefer) who feel that no one should be deprived of the privilege of buying unhealthy food simply because he or she is poor. At the other end of the spectrum there are conservatives who would prefer to scrap the whole SNAP program because it is a wasteful frill of the welfare state. However, I have to believe that the vast majority of folks on both sides of the political divide believe that feeding the less fortunate is important, but that spending their tax money on junk food and soft drinks is a bad idea.

While we still are learning that the causes of our obesity epidemic are far more complex than we once imagined, I think most people believe that soft drinks and junk food are playing a significant role – even though these same folks may have found it difficult to change their own behavior. According to the New York Times article mentioned above, Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said that instead of restricting food, the USDA has prioritized incentive programs to encourage participants to purchase more nutritious foods. However, a 2014 study of more than 19,000 SNAP recipients by Stanford researchers determined that an incentive program would not affect obesity rates, while banning sugary drinks would “significantly reduce obesity prevalence and type 2 diabetes incidence” (Health Aff. Jun 2014;33[6]:1032-9).

All we need now are a few courageous senators and congressmen to buck the soft drink lobby and bring this issue to the front burner. I have to believe that there are more than enough people, both liberals and conservatives, who would venture together on the middle ground and support removing sweetened drinks from the SNAP program. If I’m correct, it would be a refreshing example of some much needed legislative cooperation. Or, am I just a lonely dreamer longing for some company here in the center?

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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