November 23, 2015
Maine Seeks To Ban Sugary Drinks and Candy From Food Supplement ProgramThe Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on Monday announced that it has submitted a request to the federal administrators of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to allow the state to waive federal rules allowing for the purchase of candy and soft drinks with SNAP benefits.
Federal Approval Sought for Commonsense Reform
AUGUSTA – The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on Monday announced that it has submitted a request to the federal administrators of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to allow the state to waive federal rules allowing for the purchase of candy and soft drinks with SNAP benefits.
DHHS’ reason for seeking the ban on purchasing junk food with SNAP is two-fold. First, Maine is facing an obesity-related health crisis that is driving up Medicaid and private health insurance costs. With over 15 percent of the state receiving food stamps—and 88 percent of food stamp recipients also receiving Medicaid, banning the purchase of candy and soft drinks with SNAP benefits is a commonsense step toward improving the health of low-income Mainers and containing Medicaid costs. More than $115 million was spent on obesity-related medical claims in the Medicaid program from October 2014 to October 2015.
Second, the policy is in keeping with the belief of Governor Paul R. LePage’s administration that welfare benefits should be spent appropriately and only on essential items, restoring taxpayers’ faith in the integrity of the system.
Maine’s waiver request to the Obama Administration notes that the state is the most obese in New England, with its obesity rate climbing from 14 percent in 1995 to 65 percent in 2011. A 2013 survey of SNAP recipients found that they rated their health below that of the general population in Maine.
Even as SNAP enables junk food purchases, Maine spent $4.6 million on its SNAP-Ed nutrition education program in federal fiscal year 2015 to teach low-income families how to prepare nutritious and affordable meals.
“Our current food stamp policy lets water in one end of the boat while bailing out the other,” said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. “If we’re going to spend millions on nutrition education for food stamp recipients, we should stop giving them money to buy candy and soda. Maine is facing an obesity epidemic, especially among its low-income population, and we should be solving that problem rather than enabling it.”
The American Medical Association (AMA) in 2013 adopted a policy recommending SNAP remove “sugar-sweetened beverages” from its list of allowable items. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) since at least 2001 has prohibited the purchase of “foods with minimal nutritional value” with National School Lunch Program funds.
“The federal government is rightly concerned about the nutritional value of the food they serve in schools, and we hope they will be equally as concerned about the nutritional value of the food they allow to be purchased with food stamps,” said Commissioner Mayhew. “If this waiver is granted, Maine DHHS has a plan for educating recipients and retailers about the change while measuring the results and evaluating implementation.”
Nine states have either submitted similar waiver requests or urged Congress to allow states to ban junk food purchases with SNAP benefits. Those states include New York, Illinois, Minnesota, California, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Vermont, and Texas.
“This policy is about improving the health of low-income Mainers while strengthening the integrity of the food stamp program and restoring public trust in it,” concluded Mayhew. “This waiver request presents an important opportunity to determine whether the federal government’s commitment to nutrition is genuine and comprehensive or merely rhetorical and selective.”
State legislation to require DHHS to submit a similar waiver has gained considerable bipartisan support but failed in the past two legislatures for lack of votes and because of unrelated earmarks. DHHS does not require legislative approval to request the waiver.