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Should food-stamp benefits cover only healthy food selections?
General Assembly

Healthy food only with food stamps?

Senate takes up bill; federal OK uncertain

– Indiana lawmakers are close to banning low-income Hoosiers using food stamps from buying food that isn't healthy enough.

The provision requires the Family and Social Services Administration to create a statewide program limiting the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to foods and beverages that have "sufficient nutritional value."

It is only 15 lines and has gotten little attention because the primary part of the bill would drug-test some Hoosiers receiving welfare.

House Bill 1351 passed the House 71-22 and awaits a hearing in the Senate.

"I don't have a problem putting a few strings on the program," said Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, author of the bill.

He said the intent is to make sure children eat healthy.

But Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana's Hungry, said it's a broad approach that could be a logistical nightmare.

"It came from a good place I think. They want people receiving SNAP benefits to eat healthier," she said. "But there is really no evidence that they eat less healthy than other Hoosiers."

As of December, there were 900,000 food stamp recipients in Indiana.

SNAP is a federal food assistance program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The FSSA coordinates the program in Indiana and must first seek a federal waiver to institute any such nutrition limits.

Jim Gavin, director of communications at FSSA, said SNAP benefits are 100 percent federally funded and the federal government retains control of how the benefits are administered.

"Given the unlikely future of this program, we have not yet calculated a fiscal impact, but it is important to note that the retail grocers would have to enforce any such restrictions, and that places a heavy burden on them," he said.

The Legislative Services Agency also did not estimate any cost to the state for the program.

Weikert Bryant said the state would have to categorize foods and drinks and then retailers might have to upgrade software or other equipment to enforce the prohibition.

She said it is even more complicated because benefits are added to an electronic card that also holds unemployment or cash assistance. Those dollars would not be restricted.

McMillin said businesses will adjust to any new rules that affect a population they cater to in their business model.

The USDA does not categorize food as nutritious or not.

There is also the cost to those receiving food stamps. Some studies have shown eating healthy – buying fresh fruits and vegetables – can be more expensive.

A 2012 USDA report calculated the cost of eating healthy three ways – the price of food energy, or dollar per calorie; the price of edible weight, or dollar per 100 edible grams; and the price of an average portion.

For two of the three metrics, researchers found the cost of healthy foods to be less than non-healthy foods. But under food energy, the cost is higher.

Weikert Bryant also pointed to the problem of access to healthy foods.

In some neighborhoods, the only shopping choice might be walking to a convenience store, where healthy foods have a higher price and fresh produce isn't available, she said.

"Some stores just don't have a lot of healthy options. And if that's all you can get to, then that's all you can buy," Weikert Bryant said.

Amanda Browne, spokeswoman for the Food and Nutrition Service, said the agency has received three requests to restrict what can be bought with SNAP benefits.

The first, from Minnesota in 2004, wanted to ban certain candy and soft drinks. USDA denied the waiver because it didn't meet specifications of federal law.

In 2010, New York made a request for a demonstration project to restrict the purchase of certain sugar-sweetened beverages with SNAP benefits in New York City. The USDA denied it the following year, indicating its willingness to work with New York on an anti-obesity intervention.

The third was from Mississippi in 2012 and asked for a ban on soda water, water ices, chewing gum and certain candies, including hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallow candies, fondant, licorice, spun candy and candy-coated popcorn. The state later withdrew the request.

Browne said the agency doesn't capture information on specific food items bought with SNAP benefits.

Although many larger stores and supermarkets have modern scanning and inventory systems, small stores and specialty markets often do not.

McMillin acknowledged the program is a long shot but said states should send a message to the federal government that they believe they should have a say in the regulations.