AUGUSTA — Maine resident Zak McCutcheon says he likes soda but acknowledges he’d drink less of it if his governor convinced Republican President Donald Trump to put restrictions on the approximately $200 a month he receives in food stamps. He thinks it may even make recipients healthier and less overweight.
“If I was more restricted to what I could buy, I would become more of a veggie eater,” said McCutcheon, who recently perused grapes and packages of pre-chopped vegetables at an Augusta food bank with his pregnant girlfriend.
But another one of Maine’s 180,000 food stamp recipients, Samantha Watson, said she believes a ban from using food stamps on soda and candy won’t make low-income people any healthier. It would take more than that to change eating habits, she said, since food stamps cover only a fraction of the monthly grocery bill for herself and her 3-year-old daughter.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage and fellow Republicans in two other states are now renewing their efforts to restrict food stamps in the hopes that Trump will be more amenable than the previous administration.
In 2011, former Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration rejected then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban for food stamp recipients and in June, he raised “significant” concerns with LePage’s proposal, saying there’d be no meaningful way to evaluate whether the ban changed the way recipients bought sweets.
While Trump’s budget proposal doesn’t include food stamp changes, his choice for secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, of Georgia, has signaled support for overhauling the $71 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which administers food stamps to 44 million recipients.
LePage is optimistic the new administration will approve his revived proposal, which he says is backed by common sense and a desire to reduce high rates of obesity and diabetes, the latter of which afflicted his mother.
The governor’s efforts in Maine have inspired legislators in Tennessee and Arkansas, who say they won’t give up trying to restrict food stamp purchases.
“We don’t allow people to buy alcohol and cigarettes with welfare dollars, why should we allow people to buy junk food that leads to just as many health problems?'” said Tennessee Rep. Sheila Butt, a Republican, who hopes Trump will give states more power over the state-run SNAP program.
A study of one leading U.S. grocery retailer released in November by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in 2011, 20 cents of every dollar spent on food stamps went to sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar. SNAP households spent about 5 cents per dollar on soft drinks and 2 cents per dollar on candy, similar to the spending habits of households not receiving SNAP benefits.
Last summer, LePage threatened to cease Maine’s administration of the food stamp program after the USDA raised questions about Maine’s proposed ban. The governor’s renewed request would divert federal funds away from nutrition education – which amounted to $4.3 million in the last fiscal year – and toward food banks, schools and other community agencies to distribute healthy foods.
Jim Hanna, the executive director at Cumberland County Food Security Council, said poor people have enough issues to manage without being told what to eat and drink, and that a soda or candy tax would be a better approach than eliminating the state’s SNAP education program.
“It seems very contradictory to, on the one hand, limit people’s access to foods that have negative nutrition content and then to limit access to information to support them to make better choices about nutrition,” Hanna said.
The debate over restrictions goes back to the 1940s, when the then-orange food stamps couldn’t buy soft drinks, and the 1960s and 1970s, when concern over bureaucracy and figuring out just what counts as junk food hindered attempts to exclude soft drinks.
There’s been little change over the ensuing years, although the USDA will soon require stores that accept food stamps to stock more fruits, vegetables and other healthy food. The agency’s also providing farmers market with free equipment to accept SNAP debit cards, and supporting programs that provide “bonus dollars” for purchases at farmers markets.
Critics from major medical groups to food policy experts say the existing program promotes chronic illness and amounts to public subsidies for powerful junk food conglomerates that lobby against restrictions. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents companies like Coca-Cola, calls the restrictions a “bureaucratic mess.”
Still others wonder what impact the restrictions might have on SNAP long term. Tatiana Andreyeva, a University of Connecticut professor and director of economic initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, fears that proposals such as LePage’s could be the first step to the program’s decimation.
“It’s very easy to jump from a restriction on sugary beverages to let’s just cut benefits,” she said.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients use EBT cards to purchase food.