A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned Wednesday that if Maine Gov. Paul LePage follows through with his threat to halt the state’s administration of the food stamp program, nearly 200,000 Mainers could go without benefits.

Matt Herrick said in an interview Wednesday that LePage’s recent suggestion that he could either ban food stamp recipients from purchasing sugary drinks and candy without federal approval or end the state’s oversight of the program could be catastrophic.

“If the state goes through with this, more than 190,000 individuals in Maine who need assistance are at risk of losing access to what is a life-saving benefit,” Herrick said.

LePage has been frustrated over the government’s unwillingness to allow Maine to institute a ban on purchasing certain so-called junk food with food stamps. In a letter sent June 17 in response to USDA’s request for more information about how the state might carry out such a ban, the governor lashed out and suggested he may move forward without permission or stop administering the program. Although the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, is funded with federal dollars, each state is tasked with handling applications and disbursing benefits.

“It’s time for the federal government to wake up and smell the energy drinks,” LePage wrote. “Doubtful that it will, I will be pursuing options to implement reform unilaterally, or cease Maine’s administration of the food stamp program altogether. You maintain such a broken program that I do not want my name attached to it.”

Herrick said no state has ever refused to administer the federal assistance program known as food stamps and said the government has neither infrastructure nor the resources to take over that responsibility. He said the USDA has tried to work with the state to make changes but has not been convinced that a ban on sugary drinks and candy would be practical. The USDA also has said in response to various calls for restrictions that “no clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.”

“We didn’t reject the state’s proposal. We just asked for more information,” Herrick said. “In this particular case, it seems that the state is moving away from a partnership. And the governor essentially threatening to withhold benefits from people is troubling.”

Other states have sought similar bans but the USDA has yet to grant any request.

Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland said LePage is wrong to put needy Mainers in the middle of an idealogical fight he’s having with the federal government.

“Food is a basic necessity of life, and Gov. LePage is threatening to take it away from more than 195,000 food-insecure Mainers because of yet another fight he’s picked with the federal government,” Alfond said in a statement Wednesday. “This latest temper tantrum threatens to punish the very people it purports to help. I’d ask the governor this: How does taking food off the tables of hungry Maine families support healthy eating habits?”

LePage and his Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have been at odds for years with the USDA over the state’s handling of the program. The LePage administration has accused the USDA of trying to thwart reform while the federal government has criticized the state for, among other things, implementing a voluntary photo ID system without making it clear to food stamp recipients that it was voluntary, and for not responded to applications in a timely fashion.

Herrick said the state still has not addressed a backlog of about 2,000 cases. The state had been paying employees overtime to address the backlog but stopped doing so in February, Herrick said.

The USDA has tried to encourage states to improve their programs by offering incentives to recipients who use benefits to buy healthful foods. Over the last five years, purchases at Maine farmers markets using food stamps increased by 860 percent, according to new data provided by the USDA.

Additionally, Herrick said, the USDA has a program to allow food stamp recipients to double their buying power on fresh fruits and vegetables. If a recipient buys $8 worth of broccoli, for instance, it would cost them only $4 in food stamps.

Maine has not applied for that program, Herrick said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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