U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has announced that he will introduce legislation to bar the federal Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from paying for junk food.
In an op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal, Rubio writes: “Though SNAP is meant to supplement nutrition, more than 20% of all program spending goes to unhealthy food and drink. Taxpayers are projected to spend $240 billion on junk food, with more than $60 billion going exclusively to soda, over the next decade . . .
“This subsidization of junk food is fueling American health crises. More than 40% of U.S. adults are obese, and roughly half have diabetes or prediabetes. These diseases can be debilitating . . . That SNAP plays a role in their spread is immoral, irresponsible and reprehensible.
“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Rubio adds. “In 2013 progressive mayors advocated a federal pilot program to test approaches ‘limiting SNAP’s subsidization of products, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, that are contributing to obesity.’”
He also points out that in 2018, Tom Vilsack, presently secretary of agriculture, urged that Congress “should officially make diet quality a core SNAP objective just as “fiscal integrity and food insecurity are now.”
Rubio added that agriculture secretaries in the Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush administrations warned that malnutrition—including obesity—was causing thousands of American deaths per day.
Japan has taken a novel approach to the problem: an obesity tax, introduced in 2008. The measure has been judged a success, with the nation’s obesity rate at 4.3 percent in 2021.
But Americans, rightly or wrongly, imagine themselves as independent-minded and resistant to coercion, so such a measure would be unfeasible here. So would creating a “sin tax” for junk food.
On the other hand, as Rubio indicates, there is no reason the U.S. government should subsidize foods that are destroying Americans’ health.
Produce industry advocates, including the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), have urged policies such as produce prescriptions to encourage increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Some such measures have been implemented. But very likely a deterrent to purchasing junk food—especially among low-income Americans—would do at least as much good.