February 27, 2020
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Could Maine food stamps ban on soda, candy be piece of cake?

New York City Department of Health | Reuters
New York City Department of Health | Reuters
An advertisement to fight obesity created on behalf of the New York City Department of Health is shown in this undated handout. As Americans debate what is most to blame for the nation's obesity epidemic, researchers say they have the strongest evidence yet that sugary drinks play a leading role and that eliminating them would, more than any other single step, make a huge difference. Three studies published in Sept. 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine represent the most rigorous effort yet to see if there is a link between sugar-sweetened beverages and expanding U.S. Waistlines.

Democrats control the State House and Senate, but they will need Republican support to pass a biennial budget with two-thirds approval. Given the strain lawmakers will be under, quickly finding legislative areas of common ground will give them more valuable time to reconcile their major differences.

That’s one reason why Democrats should agree to bar food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase soft drinks and snack foods. The matter is not worth a fight. Though the state would need federal permission, agreeing with Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed legislation is a way for Democrats to step across the aisle to help Republicans in their quest for welfare reform. Some Democrats already support the proposal.

Should the government be paying for people to consume sugary and fatty foods? Officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the stated goal of food stamps is to help “low-income people buy the food they need for good health.” Unfortunately, soda, chips and candy don’t contribute to good health.

People have argued against the proposal by saying it stigmatizes low-income people and treats them with less respect by telling them what they can and cannot buy. But the federal government already imposes restrictions on food stamps. Recipients can’t use them to buy vitamins or hot foods that are ready to eat, for example. They also can’t use food stamps to buy alcohol or tobacco.

And the government places limits on the type of food people can buy under other programs, such as the Maine WIC Nutrition Program, which is for low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants and children up to age 5. Under the food assistance program, women can only buy eggs, 100-percent juice, beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables, tofu, peanut butter, breakfast cereal, canned fish, whole grains, dairy, infant formula and infant foods. If the government recognizes the importance of supporting a healthy diet for women and children, why should it treat the general population differently?

Of course more can be done to study whether prohibiting people from using their food stamps for soda and snack foods would improve overall health. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a two-year study in 2011 to see whether stopping food stamp users from purchasing soda would reduce their obesity rates. But the federal government said it would be too difficult logistically to differentiate between which beverages could or could not be bought with food stamps and because it would be hard to measure cause and effect.

But the question remains: Regardless of whether it would reduce obesity rates, should the government be subsidizing the purchase of unhealthy foods? If people want to eat cakes and Oreos, they will probably find a way to buy them. And banning their purchase with food stamps is not an alternative to educating people about healthy eating and living. The obesity epidemic is a complex one with many different solutions.

But a ban would send a message from both fiscal conservatives and liberal public health advocates that Maine realizes its hypocrisy in promoting the need for greater health and responsibility, while paying for people to buy candy bars. The food stamp program is important and necessary, but it loses credibility by funding the purchase of unwholesome foods.

For the sake of the program itself, Democratic and Republican collaboration and to align Maine’s priorities, it’s a good idea for the state to stop allowing people to use food stamps to satisfy their sugar and fatty-foods cravings.

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