Evaluating Equity Critiques in Food Policy: The Case of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages



Many anti-obesity policies face a variety of ethical objections. We consider one kind of anti-obesity policy — modifications to food assistance programs meant to improve participants' diet — and one kind of criticism of these policies, that they are inequitable. We take as our example the recent, unsuccessful effort by New York State to exclude sweetened beverages from the items eligible for purchase in New York City with Supplemental Nutrition Support Program (SNAP) assistance (i.e., food stamps). We distinguish two equity-based ethical objections that were made to the sweetened beverage exclusion, and analyze these objections in terms of the theoretical notions of distributive equality and social equality. First, the sweetened beverage exclusion is unfair or violates distributive equality because it restricts the consumer choice of SNAP participants relative to non-participants. Second, it is disrespectful or violates social equality to prohibit SNAP participants from purchasing sweetened beverages with food stamps. We conclude that neither equity-based ethical objection is decisive, and that the proposed exclusion of sugar-sweetened beverages is not a violation of either distributive or social equality.