May 25, 2018
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A lost opportunity: Using food stamps to fight obesity

Casey Toth | MCT
Casey Toth | MCT
Braxton Krol, 14 months, enjoys a free slice of watermelon at the N.C. State Farmer's Market in Raleigh, Thursday, August 2, 2012.


The Maine Legislature missed an opportunity, albeit a small one, this past spring to fight obesity.

The Democratically controlled Legislature in June killed a bill to require the state Department of Health and Human Services to apply to the federal government for permission to keep food stamp recipients from spending their benefits on sugary soft drinks and junk food.

It’s unlikely the bill, LD 1411, would have led directly to the needed change it sought. If it passed, the health and human services department would simply have moved ahead with an application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow Maine to impose nutrition-based restrictions on what participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which the federal government called “food stamps” until 2008 — can buy with their benefits.

The USDA had previously rejected at least two similar requests — from Minnesota in 2004 and New York City in 2011 — and would likely have rejected Maine’s. But Maine would have added its voice to a growing chorus of cities, states and public health groups that are calling on the federal government to change SNAP’s rules.

A study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found SNAP participants use their taxpayer-funded benefits to purchase up to $2.1 billion annually in sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and artificial fruit drinks — a sizable sum for beverage manufacturers. The U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, meanwhile, recommend Americans cut back on their consumption of such beverages. Added sugars like high fructose corn syrup, according to the government, account for 16 percent of calories in American diets.

In rejecting New York City’s request to bar SNAP recipients from spending their benefits on junk food, the USDA said the restriction would have been too complicated to administer. In Minnesota’s rejection letter, federal officials wrote that “supporting healthier food choices through nutrition education and promotion is preferable to the proposed mandate.”

In opposing the Maine legislation this spring, the Maine Grocers Association testified that the SNAP limitations would lead to customer confusion and necessitate cashier retraining at retail stores across the state. “Equally important is that we ensure that our SNAP customers are treated the same as all other customers who shop in our stores,” Shelly Doak, the association’s executive director, told lawmakers. “Limitations to foods that qualify for purchase under the SNAP program would reintroduce stigma back into the program.”

The stigma argument is common among national anti-hunger advocacy groups, which, coincidentally, rely on some of the country’s largest junk food and soft drink manufacturers for significant donations.

But the arguments about stigma and administrative burdens are flawed.

The federal government imposes strict rules on what participants in the federal WIC program — which provides assistance to low-income pregnant women and women with young children — can buy. WIC allows its beneficiaries to spend their benefits on only WIC-approved foods. In Maine, the approved foods list emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables and foods without excess sugar.

If stores can comply with WIC’s rules, they can surely comply — and would have a sizable market incentive to comply — with new rules imposed by SNAP. Maine had nearly 25,000 WIC participants in May, according to the USDA. The state’s SNAP program enrolled nearly 250,000, or 19 percent of the state’s population.

Opponents of SNAP restrictions emphasize an education-oriented approach to combating obesity among SNAP recipients. But there’s evidence that limiting what recipients can buy can be an effective part of a comprehensive, anti-obesity approach.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released a report showing obesity rates declined between 2008 and 2011 among low-income, preschool-age children in 19 states and territories of 43 included in its study. (Maine was not a part of the study.) It was the first evidence in years of a decline after obesity rates among U.S. preschoolers had doubled in recent decades.

WIC, which made major revisions to its nutrition guidelines in 2009, serves about half of infants in the U.S. and a quarter of children under five. Marlene Schwartz of Yale University’s Rudd Center, who has researched the WIC program, told The New Yorker she thought WIC’s emphasis on nutritious foods played a role in the obesity rate reductions. Schwartz’s research has also shown WIC’s guidelines made a difference in what people purchased, and the WIC-approved stores where they shopped adjusted their supplies to carry more nutritious foods as a result.

If WIC — which, in Maine, is a 10th of the size of SNAP — can have an impact on obesity rates among its participants by allowing them spend their benefits only on nutritious foods, imagine what similar rules in the food stamp program could accomplish.

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