Republican Rep. Mary Bentley got House Public Health Committee approval today for her HB 1035 to prevent use of food stamps for purchase of unhealthy food, a measure likely to prevent use of the supplemental nutrition benefit for soft drinks, candy and the like.
The bill ran into opposition from the grocery industry, but it carried the committee in a 12-6 vote.
She acknowledged that the bill couldn’t take effect without USDA approval. She said she hoped a “common sense” president would lead to a change in USDA’s past resistance to efforts by state to place limits on food stamp purchases.
She argued that the measure would help combat rising obesity and discourage fraud in resale of food stamp benefits because they’d be less valuable if things like candy and soft drinks couldn’t be purchased with them.
She was questioned about an unfunded mandate on grocers. Bentley said UPC codes can easily accommodate any changes in what may be reimbursed. She said she understood it would be inconvenient and an education for cashiers for a time, but it would “make a difference.”
Bentley disputed that the bill would create “food deserts,” or places where no healthy food was available. She said the nearest store to her Perry County home, at Williams Junction, had abundant healthy choices such as milk and cheese.
Who determines sufficient nutritional value in determining what items may be bought?
Bentley said Human Services and Health Department would determine that. Soft drinks would be at the top of the list, she said.
She said her bill would get food stamps back to the original purpose of helping Arkansas farmers and providing “essential” food items.
Kathy Webb, a former legislator who heads the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, opposed the bill. She said the member food banks support healthy food choices, but access to nutritious food is not equitable and choices are limited in many communities. People rely on dollar stores and convenience stores because there are no alternatives. “We feel like this would have a negative impact on many SNAP beneficiaries,” she said.
An executive representing Edwards Food Giant supermarkets said the bill seemed like a good idea on paper. But he said it doesn’t address management requirements at the retail store or the state bureaucracy that would be needed to determine how to enforce the law. “All of the burden from this legislation seems to be put on the retailer,” he said. He noted some retailers don’t have scanning equipment and the average grocery store includes 45,000 items. He said the bill would produce “A government created list that indicates good food or bad food.” Assessing new products each year would be burdensome, he said. The bill will create longer transaction times when, for example, a buyer is informed one kind of cracker is not acceptable, though another on the shelf might be. He noted there are high-calorie items viewed as healthy, such as orange juice. Would health be determined by calorie count?
The bill will cost business money and create new regulations. He urged not hurrying to push something through without a “true implementation plan.” He estimated the bill could cost his chain $1 million to upgrade cash register systems.
Rep. Deborah Ferguson asked if the bill would be less burdensome if, for example, it applied only to soft drinks and candy. She was told some questions would still be posed without clear regulations.
Representatives of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the soft drink industry lobbyist also opposed the bill.