Maine would like to stop poor people from using food stamps to buy candy and soda, the latest gambit in Republican Gov. Paul LePage's ongoing crusade to make safety net programs a little less giving.
States don't have the power to change rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so Maine is asking the federal government for a waiver.
"If we’re going to spend millions on nutrition education for food stamp recipients, we should stop giving them money to buy candy and soda," Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in a press release. The waiver request essentially resurrects Republican legislation that failed to pass the Maine Legislature this year.
"Maine is facing an obesity epidemic, especially among its low-income population, and we should be solving that problem rather than enabling it," Mayhew said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps, did not immediately comment on Maine's request. The agency has rejected a handful of similar requests from other states over the past several years.
Mayhew's agency said in a statement that 88 percent of Maine's SNAP recipients also receive Medicaid benefits, and that Medicaid has spent more than $1.5 million on obesity-related medical claims in Maine over the past year.
Food stamp recipients do tend to be heavier than the general population, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, though their diets are hardly different from everyone else's. More than 45 million Americans receive monthly SNAP benefits, which can be redeemed at grocery stores for any type of food except hot prepared meals.
The USDA has pointed out that restricting benefits to "healthy" foods would be difficult because no clear standard exists for declaring which items count as healthy. Would a ban on soda, for example, encompass other sugar-sweetened beverages? Cranberry juice, for instance, has more sugar than Coca-Cola. And banning SNAP purchases of certain products wouldn't stop SNAP recipients from using their own money for those products.
Maine's request comes not long after the state imposed an asset test on some SNAP recipients, with LePage saying hardworking Mainers are tired of seeing jet skis in their welfare-abusing neighbors' yards. The state has also instituted drug screening for beneficiaries of the much smaller Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Mayhew noted that the federal government has been willing to restrict what types of foods children eat via the National School Lunch Program.
"This waiver request presents an important opportunity to determine whether the federal government’s commitment to nutrition is genuine and comprehensive or merely rhetorical and selective," Mayhew said.
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