AUGUSTA, Maine — Sensing a more friendly response from President Donald Trump, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration on Friday asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to OK banning soft drink and candy purchases with food stamps.
It’s the second time that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has asked for a federal waiver to ban these purchases under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The first was denied by the USDA last year under former Democratic President Barack Obama.
LePage at the time vowed to implement the proposal without government approval and threatened to end Maine’s administration of the food stamp program if he wasn’t successful.
“You maintain such a broken program that I do not want my name attached to it,” wrote LePage in a June 2016 letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The LePage administration also tried twice to ban junk food purchases with SNAP benefits with legislative proposals that failed in 2013 and 2015. The 2015 bill appeared headed for passage until a floor amendment tripped it up. Despite that, Democrats are supportive of the idea according to Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, who now co-chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
“We know the public would like a public benefit to support health and healthy food choices,” she said. “I see that in my district when I go door to door. We should all eat and drink fewer sugary products.”
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee with Hymanson, agreed.
“I would hope that all the Democrats who voted for this in the last go-around will be just as happy that the governor is doing this, even though we have a new president,” said Brakey. “This [SNAP] money is supposed to help people in desperate straits. If I was donating money to a charity for people in desperate situations and I found out that someone was using it for soda or candy, I would want my money back.”
During the 2016 Republican National Convention, Brakey led an effort to have states’ ability to restrict junk food from purchases in the SNAP program added to the party’s platform. The effort failed in a voice vote.
This latest proposal is the first of a handful of health policy changes that the Republican governor’s administration has asked Trump’s new Republican administration to approve. Maine also is expected to ask the federal government to approve major changes to Medicaid.
The waiver request released by the LePage administration on Friday also asks for the authority to reallocate $4 million in federal nutrition education money in the food stamp program to food banks, schools and community agencies.
“This plan would create better access to health foods while streamlining administratively burdensome SNAP-Ed programming and reporting requirements,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew wrote in the waiver request.
Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the waiver request misses the mark if the intent is to improve public health. She said no state has ever been granted a waiver like the one Maine seeks.
“It’s not an effective solution,” she said Friday. “If we really want to solve the problem, let’s take the steps that we know work, like we did with cigarettes. We taxed the product, we made people understand the health risks, and we made a lot of progress in that area.”
This issue has been the subject of national media attention recently. The New York Times published an article in January that said soft drinks and other sugary beverages were the most common purchases by SNAP households, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all SNAP purchases. That article originally said that 10 percent of SNAP benefits are spent on just soda, but the Times issued a correction after heavy pushback.
Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data, DHHS estimates that about $13 million in SNAP money in Maine is spent on soft drinks. Concurrently, obesity and related ailments cost over $700 million per year in Maine, about one-third of which is funded by taxpayers in the Medicaid and Medicare programs.
“Maine taxpayers have seen this happening in convenience stores and grocery stores while they wait in line,” Mayhew said in a written statement. “Now the recent USDA study confirms the department’s concerns that too many tax dollars are being wasted on candy and soda instead of being used for nutritional foods.”