Legislature to debate food stamp soda ban

Posted March 26, 2009, at 11:13 p.m.

Despite objections that it would stigmatize Maine’s low-income families and ultimately be ineffective at improving Mainers’ health, Maine physicians, dentists and others are backing legislation to prohibit the use of food stamps for purchasing soda and other soft drinks.

LD 752, sponsored by Rep. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough, would require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to request a waiver from the federal Department of Agriculture to add soda to the short list of consumables that may not be purchased with funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as the food stamp program. Current federal regulations prohibit the use of food stamps for purchasing nonfood items including alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, vitamins or medicines, pet food, soap, cosmetics, laundry products or paper goods, as well as ready-to-eat items that are prepared such as restaurant food.

If Maine’s request were approved, the state would be the only one to add soda and other non-nutritional soft drinks to that list.

Pendleton, a registered nurse, said her interest in the issue was spurred by her husband, who works for a major grocery chain.

“He sees people every day using food stamps to buy huge amounts of soda” instead of milk and other healthful beverages and foods, Pendleton said Thursday.

“Soda is not healthy,” she said. “We shouldn’t be using tax dollars on something that is not good for you.”

Pediatric dentist and children’s public health advocate Jonathan Shenkin, president-elect of the Maine Dental Association, said the proposal lines up with policies endorsed by the American Dental Association. Recent studies show that soda consumption — a major contributor to tooth decay, obesity and other long-term health problems — is substantially higher among food stamp recipients of all ages than among the general population, he said.

A recent waiver requested by the state of Minnesota would have eliminated a much broader range of “junk foods” from the food stamp program in that state, Shenkin said, but it was effectively defeated by grocery industry lobbyists who argued that many snack foods contain worthwhile amounts of essential nutrients.

By focusing on non-nutritive, sugar-sweetened soda, Shenkin said, he hopes Pendleton’s far more limited proposal will avoid such arguments. He added that there is reason to think the administration of President Obama may be more inclined to grant states greater authority over food stamp spending while federal efforts to improve the program get under way.

Also supporting the measure, “because it’s good for kids,” is the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Jonathan Fanburg of Ellsworth said many food and beverage items are unhealthful and should not be paid for with public funds. Pendleton’s measure is one step in the right direction, he said.

But Chris Hastedt of the low-income advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners said banning soda from Maine’s food stamp program would “reintroduce stigma” and drive eligible recipients away from an important resource.

Hastedt said a ban is unlikely to reduce soda consumption significantly because most food stamp recipients have other income sources and would simply continue their purchasing habits using other dollars. More effective, she said, would be a broad-based effort to educate all consumers about the relative health benefits of various foods and beverages.

The bill is scheduled for a public hearing at 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 31, in Room 209 of the Cross State Office Building.

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