The first step toward restricting the use of food stamps in Arkansas has been taken by the state legislature. The House Public Health Committee voted 12-6 on Tuesday to back a bill intended to ban the purchase of junk food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Republican State Representative Mary Bentley of Perryville said lowering the state’s high obesity rate is her driving reason for sponsoring a measure to ban items like soda and chips.
“I want the kids in our state to have sippy cups that are full of good, fresh milk from Arkansas dairies and fruit juice and not Mountain Dew and Pepsi,” said Bentley.
The state’s Medicaid bill is also at the top of her list of reasons for the legislation, “If we have any hope of bending this cost curve in Medicaid in our state we’ve got to do something to make a difference.”
The third pillar in Rep. Bentley’s argument is that illegally selling SNAP cards for cash would become less profitable since the type of goods they can be used for would be restricted.
Bentley’s bill passed by a comfortable margin although much of the public testimony was in opposition.
Advocacy groups like the Arkansas Public Policy Panel announced opposition as did more narrow special interest groups like the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Association.
The vice president of Arkansas-based Edwards Food Giant, Paul Rowton, said it places too much burden on stores and could cost his 760-employee, 13-store company about $1 million to implement. He thinks it’ll entail a lot more involvement from the state to figure out what is and what isn’t junk food than Bentley believes.
“The average grocery store in Arkansas carries approximately 45,000 different items and is tasked with reviewing up to 15,000 new items per year," said Rowton.
Rowton then made another appeal to the Republican sponsor of the bill, saying it would lead to big government.
"The proposal to restrict SNAP choice would lead to a government-created food list.”
Bentley’s bill would have the state Department of Human Services craft an approved food list based on guidelines from the federal WIC program.
The executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Kathy Webb, said that’s a bad model to follow for the general population.
“The WIC program, which is an outstanding program, was designed for pregnant women, for infants, and children and the WIC guidelines would not be appropriate for senior citizens or people with diabetes and high blood pressure and heart disease.”
Webb, who is also a former Democratic state representative, said restricting how families can use SNAP benefits is asking people to stretch scarce dollars even thinner.
“Eating healthy costs more money. Families and individuals who qualify for SNAP are low income and they make difficult choices.”
Webb said nutrition education is the best way to get people to purchase healthy foods.
If approved by the full House, and later the state Senate, any changes ultimately have to be approved at the federal level – since SNAP relies on federal funds. Bentley’s bill is permission to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change the parameters for how Arkansas spends SNAP money. The program serves over 400,000 low-income Arkansans.