Politics

What Maine Wants to Do With Food Stamps Is Causing Controversy

February 21st 2017

By:
Danielle DeCourcey

The state of Maine doesn't want food stamps used for junk food anymore, and the latest proposal started a debate about the obesity epidemic in the United States.

"We must restore integrity to this program by advancing this common sense reform of prohibiting the use of food stamps for the purchase of soda and candy," Commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew said in a Feb. 17 press release. "We do not need to debate or study whether there is any nutritional value to soda and candy."

Maine's Department of Health and Human Services once again requested permission from the federal government to ban residents on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from using their benefits for sugary drinks and candy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture previously denied Gov. Paul LePage's (R) requests for additional restrictions on food stamp purchases, prompting the governor to write an angry letter to former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in June of 2016. In the letter, LePage threatened to end the SNAP program altogether, a federally funded program that is administered by the states.

On Feb. 16, the House Agriculture Committee had a two hour hearing on whether the federal government should restrict SNAP benefit purchases. Politico's Catherine Boudreau reported that most of the expert witnesses were against restrictions.

"The arguments against such a course, whether they were made by anti-poverty advocates, retailers, liberals or conservatives, were all pretty much the same: It would be complicated, costly and unfair. And then there were some who didn’t think it would encourage healthier eating regardless (though there hasn’t been solid research on that question)."

Advocates who fight food insecurity push back against bans like this one.

Allison Pratt, the chief of partnerships and strategy from the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California, told ATTN: that restricting foods like candy and soda can scare low-income people away from benefits they need.

"A problem we face is that many people who are eligible for SNAP are not receiving the benefits," she said via email. "Policies like this could have a chilling effect on participation to the extent that they introduce stigma into the program."

People on Twitter had mixed responses to the new proposal.

Some users pointed out that the ban won't fix a lack of access to nutritious food, a significant problem for SNAP recipients and other low-income Americans.

ATTN: has previously reported on food deserts, or neighborhoods (usually poor) where there is limited access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy options. Also many low-income Americans don't have access to transportation or face mobility issues that prevent them from getting to a store with healthy options.

A 2011 study of 3,139 counties by a researcher from the Mayo Clinic found that Americans who live in the most "poverty-dense" areas are also more likely to be obese, and one suggested reason among other lifestyle factors is that access to quality food is poor, even when there are funds available to buy it.

Would a ban on candy and soda reduce obesity?

Pratt said that restrictions on SNAP purchases don't address the real problems contributing to unhealthy eating.

"We talk with families every day who already know what they need to eat to be healthy, they just can’t afford it," she said. She recommended programs like California's Market Match that offer incentives for recipients to buy healthier foods.

"Programs like these will increase access and consumption of healthy foods," she said. "Limiting food choice in the SNAP program does nothing to make healthier foods more affordable or accessible."

RELATED: Maine's Governor Wants to Take This Benefit Away From Thousands of People