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November 30 2015

Maine to Food Stamp Recipients: Put Down that Snickers Bar!

Patrice J. Lee

Forget setting a New Years’ resolution, Maine residents who receive government food assistance may get weight loss help from a ban on what they can put in their shopping carts.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is seeking to keep candy and soft drinks out of the reach of food stamp recipients by asking federal agenst for a waiver to prohibit those food purchase within the federal food assistance programs called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

This is a proactive effort intended to combat obesity and medical issues caused by it which the federal government has to pay for. According to HHS, the state of Maine spent more than $115 million on obesity-related medical claims in Medicaid. A whopping majority of Mediciad recipients (88 percent) receive SNAP benefits and when they make poor food choices, HHS claims that leads to chronic health problems that government picks up the tab for. According to recent research, soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages accounted for 58 percent of all refreshment beverage purchases by SNAP and the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, programs

Included in the candy ban are items such as Gummie Bears, jelly beans, chocolate, marshmallows, processed fruit snacks and sweetened baking chocolate. Soft drinks include soda, juice cocktails, juice drinks containing 50 percent or less of vegetable or fruit juice, lemonade, fruit punch, and energy and sports drinks. In either case some healthy options, or items that serve good purposes would be put out of reach.

Apparently, this is not the first time that the other states have tried to get similar waivers from the Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP. Nine other states have tried and failed. Not surprisingly, New York City tried to get a similar waiver a few years ago and was denied because it would have overburdened retailers without sufficient evidence that there would be an impact on obesity rates and health.

Portland Press reports on both sides of the issue:

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said Monday that poor food choices lead to chronic health problems and “perpetuate a cycle of continued spending for health care services.”

Mayhew noted the USDA’s resistance to the change, saying it was time for the agency to “start walking the talk” when it promotes healthy food choices.

“We look forward to a swift and supportive decision by the federal government on our request and the implementation of this change within the SNAP program in the coming months,” she said.

On the opposite side is an interesting coalition of advocates for the poor, food companies, and small businesses like corner store owners:

Advocates for the poor, the soft-drink industry and the trade group representing grocers opposed the junk food bill when it came before the Legislature in April. Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Mainers, cited a study by the Illinois Public Health Association that found restricting junk food purchases wouldn’t have the desired effect because SNAP recipients often use out-of-pocket cash to supplement their benefit allowance when buying food.

Maine Equal Justice Partners’ Christine Hastedt said Monday that the junk food ban is an ineffective and potentially costly way to address a problem that affects the entire U.S. population…

The Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association also opposes the change. Shelley Doak, who represents the grocers group, said Monday that Maine should not go it alone in restricting certain foods from being purchased within a federal program. Doing so, she said, would create a patchwork of regulations across the states that would create logistical and compliance hurdles for grocers who run multiple locations across several states.

But Muse’s father, Abdulkadir, who also works at the store, pointed out such a change would “damage business” for such small shops, echoing a concern often voiced by retail shops.

This is an interesting spin on efforts by lawmakers to control what we put in our mouths. Nanny state policymakers such as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg were notorious for pushing for city and state-wide bans on fatty and sugary foods. First lady Michelle Obama raised the stakes to the federal level.

However, those efforts were targeted at all consumers whereas what Maine is attempting to do is restricted just to recipients of government aid. While no one should have their forks regulated and it’s questionable whether there will be any impact, if the money they are using to purchase the food on the end of their fork or straw is coming from the government, they may have to accept the strings attached. 

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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