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What can't food stamps buy? New York City wants sugary drinks on 'no' list

To combat obesity, New York City wants to ban the purchase of sodas and sugary drinks with food stamps. Some see rise of 'food police.'

Pepsi co. products A&W Cream Soda, Sierra Mist and Mt. Dew are shown on display at a grocery store in Palo Alto, Calif., on Oct. 6. To combat obesity, New York City could be the first to ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps.

Paul Sakuma/AP

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New York City has long led the way in antiobesity and other health initiatives. It was among the first cities to ban trans fats from restaurants, require calorie counts on menus, and end smoking in outdoor public areas.

Now, thanks to a controversial new proposal, it could be the first to ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture to add sugary beverages like soda and sports drinks to the list of things food stamps cannot be used to buy, including alcohol, toiletries, and cigarettes. If passed, the measure would kick off a two-year pilot program in New York City.

"This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment," Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement.

But many antihunger advocates say Bloomberg's proposal crosses a line.

"We think it's a bad idea," says James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. "The food stamp program is strong precisely because it's come to be largely invisible at the checkout counter and treats people like normal consumers.… I think Bloomberg's proposal … makes the program more complicated, more stigmatized, more punitive. It doesn't make sense."

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