The improper use of tax dollars irks me as much as the next Mainer. Any misuse now in these very challenging economic times is even more profoundly disconcerting.
To the surprise of many people here in Maine, the food stamp program is the epicenter of a grotesque misuse of tax dollars. The abuse is tax dollar-supported purchases of junk food, specifically soda, with food stamps. The proper use of these dollars is vital, because of the incredible value food stamps have for improving the well-being of Mainers who rely on them for the purchase of quality foods. Personal choice to purchase junk food and soda with tax dollars is trumped by our need to provide healthful food and beverages with the limited benefit families receive through food stamps.
I expect quite a contradiction to occur if Maine proposes this tax savings proposal. This year we witnessed the soda industry pump millions of dollars into Maine to convince Mainers that they should not be paying more taxes. Yet, we will almost surely witness the soda industry fight the removal of soda from food stamps that would result in taxpayer savings by reduced health care costs, specifically dental costs, as well as those associated with obesity.
This improper use of funds is even more disturbing because of the increasing number of Mainers who now use food stamps because of our troubled economy. The food stamp program is a federally funded but state-administered assistance program. In the year 2000, roughly 100,000 Mainers received monthly food stamp benefits. Today, more than 160,000 Mainers or 12 percent of the state population receive monthly benefits from food stamps, which are intended to help residents with lower incomes purchase food. This is a dramatic increase in reliance on tax dollars to feed Maine families with nearly $170 million a year in tax dollars supporting food stamps in Maine. In hard economic times, food stamps are the only source of nutritional foods for many families and a supplement to many others.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps, the intent of the food stamp program is to provide families with “healthful” food. This is a similar intent of another federal meal assistance program, the school lunch program, which subsidizes “healthful” meals for children in our schools. Unlike the school lunch program, food stamps can be used to buy a vast array of junk food and soda with taxpayer dollars. The guideline in schools has long been established: providing low-cost healthful foods for children that try to maximize nutrition with minimal expense to the taxpayer.
As a taxpayer and health care provider who sees the dramatic impact on Mainers from poor nutrition, this discovery of misappropriation of funds is not so simple. By enabling low-income Mainers to purchase junk food and soda, we are promoting Maine’s most acute health issue among children and adults — dental disease. Since most of the recipients of food stamps are also MaineCare recipients, our taxpayer dollars are not only going to pay for junk food and soda, but we are also using our tax dollars to pay for the subsequent dramatic dental disease associated with consumption of non-nutritious foods such as soda. The impact on obesity is also more clearly associated with soda consumption.
A study funded by the USDA, which was conducted in Connecticut, found that children living in homes with food stamps consumed more soda than families without food stamps of similar poverty levels. Though the program improves many dietary intake levels we strive to achieve, increased soda intake is not a behavior change the taxpayer should be paying for.
In order to right this wrong, Maine would have to request a waiver from the federal government to expel soda from the state food stamp program. This was attempted before by the state of Minnesota, which ventured to define junk food (including soda) and applied for a waiver in 2004. This waiver was denied by the federal government. This is in total contradiction to the federal guidelines set up for children through our school lunch program. The USDA should be consistent in what it considers healthful foods since roughly 65 percent of households receiving food stamps have children living in them.
Maine should be the first state to request a waiver under the next federal administration, which will likely have a different view on food and beverages in federal programs. This proposal is in line with new policy established by the American Dental Association, which now would like to see soda become an ineligible purchase from food stamps. Maine should keep it simple and only request the removal of soda from our food stamp program so as not to fall victim to the sophisticated and well-financed soda industry lobby. Removal of soda from food stamps would further the value of food stamps and help ensure the good public health role food stamps play in our state.
Jonathan Shenkin is president-elect of the Maine Dental Association and a pediatric dentist in Bangor.