By John Byrne
10:06 AM EDT, June 21, 2013
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to ban soda from City Hall vending machines and has not joined the push to limit the size of sugary drinks people can buy, citing the importance of “personal responsibility.”
That philosophy apparently does not extend to poor people on food stamps, however.
Emanuel signed a letter along with 17 other mayors urging Congress to look at limiting the ability of those receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to buy soda.
The mayors suggested the food stamp program “can do more to address the pressing challenge of obesity and diet-related disease.”
“It is time to test and evaluate approaches limiting SNAP’s subsidization of products, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, that are contributing to obesity,” states the June 18 letter to Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The letter’s main thrust was to ask the House not to make cuts to the food stamp program, and a version of the farm bill that would have done just that was defeated Thursday.
Emanuel’s decision to join New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and others asking for federal government control of what food stamp recipients can buy contrasts with his stance on Chicagoans’ access to sugary pop.
Last fall, Emanuel announced a plan to accept millions of dollars from the major soft-drink companies to pay for government worker health care. The mayor said he would order that vending machines in city buildings include calorie information, but would not outlaw the drinks from being sold, as his Boston counterpart did.
“I believe firmly in personal responsibility,” Emanuel said then when asked why he didn’t follow Menino’s lead or join Bloomberg in limiting the size of soda sold in certain kinds of stores.
Emanuel went on to reach other lucrative agreements with Coca-Cola. A top Coke executive appeared with Emanuel at a Near West Side park in November to announce the soft drink giant would contribute $3 million to pay for Chicago Park District nutrition classes to fight obesity and diabetes as well as for exercise classes run by military veterans.
And in April, the mayor announced Coke would pay $2.59 million to purchase 50,000 blue recycling carts for Chicago homes to help Emanuel keep a pledge to extend household recycling pick-up throughout Chicago. In return, the city agreed to include images of Coke products on the lids of the bins.
Asked about this week’s letter, Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander noted it also calls for the federal government to give food stamp recipients incentives to eat healthier, for example by expanding programs to allow food stamps at farmers markets.
“The letter, which was signed by 18 mayors, urged Congress to incentivize healthy food and beverage options under the SNAP program — the same thing we do in city government, having moved completely to healthy vending machines, and through our food access initiatives throughout Chicago,” Alexander said in an e-mail. “We are not limiting options, but are incentivizing healthy choices.”
Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute, gave Emanuel credit for reducing the prevalence of unhealthy snacks like candy bars in vending machines in city buildings and in Chicago Park District facilities. But she said drinking too much soda is a problem not just for the lower-income Americans who get food stamps.
And Bassler said healthy beverages like milk are usually considerably more expensive per ounce than bottles of pop. She suggested city officials look at a broad tax on sugary drinks of the kind that has been discussed in the Chicago City Council but never gained traction.
“It’s really a societal situation,” Bassler said.
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