AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that that would see Maine ask the federal government for permission to disallow the purchase of junk food with state and federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds, once called food stamps, cleared the House of Representatives on a narrow 73-70 vote Monday.
The bill, LD 526, directs the Department of Health and Human Services to seek a waiver from the federal government to ban junk food purchases but it also provides financial incentives for low-income families to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables.
For the most part, the list of foods that would be barred under the proposal is composed largely of snack items subject to Maine’s sales tax including candy and confections, fudge, ice, liquid iced tea or coffee, soft drinks and water. The majority of grocery items are not subject to sales tax in Maine.
The bill offered by state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, is similar to ones being proposed in Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.
“Requesting this waiver is a small step in the right direction,” said Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland. “But it’s just the beginning of an important conversation that we must have with the federal government surrounding public health.”
But Hamann said just shutting down the use of food stamps for junk food wasn’t enough and wouldn’t work. Instead Hamann said Maine and other states needed to increase access to healthy, whole foods such as fresh produce.
“Hunger is not a partisan issue,” Hamann said. “Let’s put the federal government on notice that we don’t want to put junk food on the tables of our food insecure families no matter what the junk food lobby in Washington, D.C., has to say.”
But those who opposed the bill said the state already spends $4 million a year in federal funds aimed at educating SNAP recipients on healthy food choices.
Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said she opposed the bill because it should have been a simple request for a waiver to limit SNAP benefits.
“Creating another pilot project, with other funding means is really not necessary and it’s confusing,” Sanderson said.
The bill passed the Senate last week on a 30-4 vote and will return there before being sent to Gov. Paul LePage for his consideration.