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Food stamp nutrition policy is a poor choice

Lawmaker wrongly targets food stamp users

Weikert Bryant

A food stamp recipient makes for an easy target. With debit card in hand and purchases displayed on a grocery conveyor belt, some can’t help but judge: Wouldn’t broccoli be a better choice than frozen French fries?

But Indiana House Republicans want to do more than judge. With House Bill 1351, they would require the Family and Social Services Administration to create a statewide program limiting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to foods and beverages that have “sufficient nutritional value.” It’s one provision of a mean-spirited bill that also requires some welfare recipients to undergo drug testing.

The bill passed by a mostly party-line vote, 71-22. It comes before the Senate Health and Provider Services Committee this morning.

“I don’t have a problem putting a few strings on the program,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville.

Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, was charitable when she suggested the bill was well intended.

“It came from a good place, I think,” she told The Journal Gazette’s Niki Kelly. “They want people receiving SNAP benefits to eat healthier. But there is really no evidence that they eat less healthy than other Hoosiers.”

A 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, however, found that SNAP recipients overall don’t make the best food choices.

“Among all study participants, baseline consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains was low, and consumption of refined grains, sweets and bakery desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages was high compared with the recommendation from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” according to the study.

The choices aren’t surprising. On a caloric basis, refined grains are more filling than fresh fruit and vegetables, and more important, they often are easier to find. A Department of Agriculture study found that that people living in low-income areas, with limited access to affordable, nutritious food, spend significantly more time traveling to a grocery store than the average American. They also are the least likely to have a car.

“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 explained.

While the state administers food stamp benefits, the money comes primarily from the federal government. SNAP benefits, in fact, were a major sticking point in recent farm bill negotiations, as groups rallied to ensure assistance to low-income families wouldn’t see more than a 1 percent cut – $800 million a year.

It’s likely the Food and Nutrition Service won’t allow Indiana to place any more restrictions on SNAP benefits. The department has denied such efforts elsewhere, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s much publicized war on large sugary drinks.

Lawmakers undoubtedly are tapping into an underlying frustration when they target low-income Hoosiers. Their efforts, however, could just as well be spent scrutinizing the assistance provided to businesses like Destination Brookville, a company the food stamp bill author, McMillin, started in 2010. While he withdrew his own involvement in the enterprise, McMillin’s mother and some family friends still controlled it when the lawmaker advocated for a $600,000 economic development grant that would benefit the company. When the Indianapolis Star reported on the conflict last year, McMillin resigned from the committee awarding the grants and said he would sponsor a bill during the next session to increase oversight and accountability. He filed a bill requiring more accountability for welfare recipients but didn’t offer legislation regarding the grant program.

Economic development assistance isn’t as easy to judge as food in a grocery basket. But nutrition policy is a complex issue. Without a better grasp of likely consequences, it is a wasteful target unlikely to make a difference. The Senate committee should reject HB 1351.