No food stamps for junk food: Florida bill would ban buying sweets with food stamps

11:16 AM, Feb 6, 2012   |    comments
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St. Petersburg, Florida -- Florida's struggling families can use food stamps to buy staples like milk, vegetables, fruits and meat. But they can also use them to buy sweets like cakes, cookies, and Jell-O and snack foods like chips -- something a state senator wants stopped. 

A bill by Republican State Senator Ronda Storms of Valrico would allow the state Department of Children and Families to determine "nonstaple, unhealthy foods" and prevent food stamp money from being spent on them.

The bill gives this list of off-limits foods, but says the restrictions should not be limited to just these items:

  • Foods containing trans fats 
  • Sweetened beverages, including sodas
  • Jell-O
  • Candy
  • Ice cream
  • Pudding
  • Popsicles
  • Muffins
  • Sweet rolls
  • Cakes
  • Cupcakes
  • Pies
  • Cobblers
  • Pastries
  • Doughnuts
  • Corn-based salty snacks
  • Pretzels
  • Party mix
  • Popcorn
  • Potato chips

Under existing law, food stamps -- also called by their formal name, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- already cannot be spent on these items:

  • Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco
  • Pet food, soaps, paper products, or household supplies
  • Vitamins and other medicines
  • Food that will be eaten in the store
  • Hot foods

Studies of the issue by the USDA, which oversees the nationwide program, have found these concerns with past attempts to ban sweets and junk foods from the food stamp program:

- No clear standards exist for defining food as "good" or "bad," or "healthy" and "unhealthy"
One example is diet soda -- it contains zero calories, so should it be considered "unhealthy?"

- New regulations mean new complexity and cost
There are more than 300,000 food products on the market, so blocking and tracking sweets and junk food could be costly, and store cashiers would be left to make the ultimate decisions

- No evidence exists that food stamp use contributes to a poor diet or obesity
Research shows food stamp users are as likely as rich people to make poor food choices 

Storms' bill (SB 1658) recently passed a committee; a companion bill in the state House (HB 1401) is being considered by a subcommittee.

The bill would also require the state to launch a culturally sensitive campaign to educate people about the benefits of a nutritious diet. Supporters say it would help recipients follow healthy eating habits and prevent taxpayer funds from being used to purchase luxury foods like bakery cakes when they can whip up a cheaper box mix.

"Most individuals using public assistance dollars are using the funds to get by and to provide for their families. However, we should do what we can to prevent dollars intended to help Florida's poorest families from being spent in the wrong places," Storms said in a statement.

But critics say the government shouldn't dictate what people eat.

"What I choose to ingest even though I may be on food stamps, that's at my discretion. I don't need government telling me what I can and cannot purchase," said Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, a Pompano Beach Democrat who voted in committee against the bill.

She said the bill is demeaning and invasive and she worries the education campaign would imply to "minorities and low-income folks that they're not intelligent enough to make selections on the foods they want."

The state Department of Children and Families, which oversees Florida's food stamp program, would have to get federal approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement the bill if it passes, which may be tricky since no other states have been successful.

The federal government spent nearly $5 billion last year to help about 3 million Floridians, as an increasing number are relying on the program in a sour economy. The average monthly benefit in the state is about $140 per person, according to the USDA.

In 2004, Gov. Tim Pawlenty tried to make Minnesota's welfare program the first in the country to ban recipients from buying candy with food stamps, but feds didn't go for it. Last year, New York City applied for a waiver to restrict the sale of soda and sugary drinks, but that was also denied.

Iowa, California and Texas have proposed similar bills in the past two years, but nothing has been passed into law, according to at the National Conference of State Legislators.

The waivers often require cumbersome negotiations with federal officials and, if granted, cannot originally be applied statewide. The USDA requires a control group, meaning it must be started as a pilot program in a few counties, and be evaluated by an outside party, said Sheri Steisel, director of human services policy for NCSL.

A group of bishops and welfare advocates met with lawmakers to oppose the bill they say is insulting to Florida's growing number of unemployed.

"The proposed legislation creates new hurdles for families already struggling to meet their most basic daily needs," said Debra Susie, executive director for Florida Impact and the Florida Partnership to End Childhood Hunger.

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