Tennessee legislators proposed a bill that would prevent food stamp users from buying junk food and soda with government benefits, but even if the measure passes, the ban is unlikely to go into effect.
The bill, introduced Thursday by state GOP Rep. Sheila Butt, would request permission to add soda, ice cream, cookies and cake to the list of prohibited items from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that manages the $74 billion program.
“At the end of the day, if you’re on public assistance, you shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to consume junk food that leads to additional health problems and more taxpayer assistance to address those problems,” Butt said, NBC affiliate WCNC reports.
The proposed Tennessee bill is similar to a law proposed in Arkansas, which would ask the USDA for a ban on junk food purchases with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also called food stamps.
Other states, including Maine, Minnesota and New York City have tried to limit what foods SNAP recipients can buy, but the federal government has so far prevented any state or municipality from placing any additional restrictions on the program.
Families on food stamps typically buy the same kind of groceries that other families purchase, except when it comes to soda. A recent USDA report revealed that food stamps recipients spend more on soda than on vegetables, bread or fruit. In a study that looked at all purchases made at an unnamed nation-wide grocery store, 9.3 percent of all food stamp purchases in the $74 billion program went to sugar sweetened beverages (excluding fruit juices). Sodas and sugary drinks accounted for 7 percent of non-food stamps purchases.
Maine, which asked the USDA for a waiver to ban snacks and soda purchases in 2013, is still fighting with the federal agency that ostensibly seeks to encourage food stamps users to purchase healthy and nutritions food.
Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage said in June that USDA has a double standard, on the one hand advocating healthy nutrition while at the same time using taxpayer money to subsidize a “steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew” for poor people on welfare. The state even threatened to refuse to implement the federally-funded food stamps program if the USDA did not allow it to restrict purchases.
USDA understands that poor families on food stamps frequently purchase unhealthy foods, but has tried to encourage more healthy purchasing decisions rather than limit what food items could be purchased in the program.