Big Soda SNAPping Up Welfare Dollars
Free-Market Think-Tank that Staunchly Fought Mayor Bloomberg's Soda Regulations Questions Use of Food Stamps on Non-Nutritious Soda
Industry Lobbyists Fight to Keep Taxpayers Subsidizing Sugary Treats for Nearly 50 Million SNAP Recipients
Washington, D.C. - Nearly 47.7 million Americans are now receiving some sort of "food stamp" welfare related to the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Makers of high-calorie sugary beverages are getting their cut of this taxpayer-funded assistance, with an estimated take of around $4 billion annually. The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington-based free-market think-tank, questions why taxpayers are being forced by law to subsidize the sweet tooth of nearly 50 million people.
Soft drink manufacturers including but not limited to the Coca-Cola Company actively lobby against proposals, such as a state-level bill in Florida that treated sodas as a luxury item, to make non-nutritious food and beverages ineligible for food stamps. Even though Coca-Cola makes healthy drinks under their Minute Maid, Simply Orange and Odwalla brands, the chief sponsor of the Florida bill called Coca-Cola one of the bill's "biggest opponents."
National Center Executive Director David Almasi tried to ask Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent about the SNAP issue at the company's shareholder meeting April 25 in Atlanta, but was not called on during the general Q&A session. Almasi then tried to engage Mr. Kent after the meeting. Rather than defend his company's policy, Kent instead briskly walked away from the discussion and into a secure area where Almasi could not follow, so Almasi never received a response from the otherwise jovial executive.
Despite the brush-off, Almasi was later able to raise the issue with Coca-Cola senior staff still on-site. Their explanation for the company's reluctance to stand on the reputation of their healthier beverages is a fear that one restriction could lead to a slippery slope of future regulations affecting their products.
In a statement given to Almasi after the shareholder meeting, a Coke official said: "Regarding your question on the Company's position on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participant purchases, we join with others in the non-alcoholic beverage industry and the broader food products industry concerned about any static policy, including SNAP benefits, that would look across 300,000+ items in a grocery store and arbitrarily restrict the sale of some of our products based on calorie content."
"At the shareholder meeting, Coca-Cola's CEO was asked about the company's effects on the environment and obesity, and Mr. Kent was polite and accommodating, considering the inherent hostility of their questions. But the company doesn't seem so accommodating when it comes to the issue of my tax dollars being spent freely on products I was brought up to believe were a treat and not a staple," said Almasi. "The National Center and I have been a vocal proponent of Coca-Cola's right to sell any and all of its products when it comes to the nanny-state restrictions of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his ilk, but it's with the understanding that sugary beverages are a specialty item. When it comes to public assistance, I want people buying what they need with my money and not what they desire."
"Platitudes are plenty at these shareholder meetings, but the smiles turn upside down when there are millions and possibly billions of dollars at stake," Almasi noted. "All we want is accountability for our hard-earned money. Is that too much to ask?"
The National Center is not singling out the Coca-Cola Company, as other sodamakers, such as PepsiCo, and other companies, such as Cargill, apparently also are lobbying against restricting food stamp use to items with at least some nutritional benefit.
The National Center raised a similar issue at the 2012 shareholder meeting of Yum! Brands, the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Wingstreet, and has other activities planned.
"Coca-Cola and the others we've tried to talk to about SNAP are titans of our free-market economy, but SNAP does not operate in a free market," said Almasi. "SNAP welfare payments are meant as a gift from the taxpayers to the truly needy. Through their elected representatives, taxpayers should be allowed to have some say on how their money is invested if there are any concerns about mismanagement. We're asking that companies walk the walk and not just talk the talk."
Taxpayers' ability to find out how SNAP dollars are spent may become easier with the introduction of the "SNAP Transparency Act" in Congress by Representative Tom Marino (R-PA). The bill, if passed and signed into law, would charge the government with creating an online database that utilizes barcode technology to itemize how much food stamp money is spent on individual products.
Almasi added: "Transparency in how Americans' tax dollars are spent on welfare is overdue. It's time for us to be able to see and decide if we like the way things are spent. Through this, we can decide what reforms may need to be made. It would appear obvious that the manufacturers will not reform themselves."
Both the National Center for Public Policy Research and David Almasi are Coca-Cola shareholders.
The National Center for Public Policy Research, founded in 1982, is a non-partisan, free-market, independent conservative think-tank. Ninety-four percent of its support comes from individuals, less than four percent from foundations, and less than two percent from corporations. It receives over 350,000 individual contributions a year from over 96,000 active recent contributors.
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