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Feds quash mayor’s sugar ban

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Queens residents who use food stamps will still be able to buy sugary drinks after the mayor’s plans to ban the sweet beverages was rejected by the federal government Friday.

The plan was designed to combat diabetes and obesity, which the mayor linked to the consumption of the sugary products, by prohibiting New Yorkers who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from using food stamps to purchase them.

But a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Mayor Michael Bloomberg Friday with the news that the pilot program was shot down, according to a mayoral spokesman.

“We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country — and at little or no cost to taxpayers,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “We’re disappointed that the federal government didn’t agree and sorry that families and children may suffer from their unwillingness to explore our proposal.”

But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the federal program would rather reward healthy eating habits for food stamp users instead of prohibiting the purchase of certain foods and beverages.

“USDA has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions that are better suited for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals who rely on SNAP for basic nutrition assistance,” he said in a statement. “We are confident that we can solve the problem of obesity and promote good nutrition and health for all Americans and stand ready to work with New York City to achieve those goals.”

The USDA identified several problems with the mayor’s proposal. The agency said the pilot program was too large and would be overly complicated.

In addition, it said Bloomberg’s proposal for the pilot did not demonstrate that it would work effectively, while a spokesman for the mayor said the idea for the pilot was based on information provided by the city Department of Health.

Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, shared some of the USDA’s concerns about the pilot program.

“We thought [the program] was misguided,” he said. “We thought it was based on the false assumption that low-income people didn’t know what was good for them.”

Instead, Berg said other city programs that reward SNAP users for buying healthy products are much more effective.

“We know from our experience that low-income people desperately want nutritious food,” he said. “They don’t have to be coerced. They don’t need to be punished.”

Pockets of Queens, including Corona, Jamaica and Queensbridge Houses, use food stamps heavily, Berg said. But the problem is far more extensive.

“There is poverty, hunger and food stamp participation in all parts of the borough,” he said, even in neighborhoods not typically associated with poverty like Forest Hills, Flushing and Astoria.

“There is a lot more poverty and struggle there than most people realize,” he said.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 11:32 am, October 12, 2011
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