Rep. Mary Bentley‘s bill to limit the use of food stamps, which she says is aimed at combating rising obesity and discouraging food stamp fraud, today passed the House 55-39.
The bill would would mandate that the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) “shall only allow benefits to be used only for foods, food products, and beverages that have sufficient nutritional value.”
The state’s Department of Health would be charged with determining what products qualify as having sufficient nutritional value based upon the standards for another food aid program, the Women, Infant and Children Program (WIC). WIC, for pregnant women and women with young children, has strict nutritional requirements and can only be used for certain items, such as milk, eggs, tofu, breakfast cereal, beans, whole grain items, infant formula and baby food, and fruits and vegetables.
A number of lawmakers have expressed concerns about the potentially vague definition of “sufficient nutritional value” and the regulatory burden imposed in enforcing this list on retailers (grocery stores and other retailers oppose Bentley’s bill).
SNAP can be currently be used to buy any food item, with exceptions for alcohol and hot food or food that would be eaten in-store.
The state would have to acquire a waiver from the federal government in order to enact the strict limitations it envisions. Republicans in the West Virginia legislature unsuccessfully tried to pass a similar bill last year.
Rep. Vivian Flowers asked Bentley about whether people on food stamps would have access to healthy food given the food deserts that exist in the state.
Bentley did not answer the question. She said that she wished that convenience stores where food stamps are used would provide healthy food. She expressed the hope that Dollar General stores and the like would respond to her bill by starting to do so. Indeed, she offered the fantastical vision that her bill would miraculously solve the problem of food deserts altogether. Well. The zeal for imposing bureaucratic hurdles upon the poor can cloud even the soundest of minds, it seems.
As I’ve mentioned before, the USDA is beginning to try to address structural problems and explore innovative solutions to increase access to healthy food to people living in food deserts, defined by the USDA “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas…due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” But Bentley’s bill does nothing to address the access problem, instead opting to impose additional rules, hurdles, and hassles on poor people.
Republican Rep. Jana Della Rosa, speaking against the bill, said the bill would impose burdensome regulations on businesses and said that it was too vague about what counted as allowable “nutritional” food. She asked whether bacon would make the cut. I think I heard some gasps from the chamber. “We’re leaving it to a bureaucracy to decide and it’s written so broadly that they can pretty much put anything on the list or take anything off that they want to,” she said.
Republican Rep. Laurie Rushing, a former food stamp recipient, spoke emotionally about the value of the food stamp program and the potential problems this bill would impose on the poor. Democrats Rep. Michael John Gray and Greg Leding also spoke against the bill (Leding, keeping with the theme of the day, noted that an estimated 19,000 veterans in Arkansas are on food stamps).
Speaking for the bill, Rep. Trevor Down noted that the N in SNAP stands for “Nutrition.”
All House Democrats save one voted against the bill, as well as 15 Republicans, but it wasn’t enough. The bill is on to the senate.