January 6, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Is that Gov. LePage picking a soda fight? Sweet!

We're all creatures of habit. That would explain why, on a recent visit to the lunchroom, I fed my $1.25 into the Coke machine and automatically hit the top button -- the one that has always said "Diet Coke."

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Food Stamps: Follow the Money

Only this time it didn't. The machine guy had switched the top button and, much to my irritation, a regular Coke popped out the chute.

"Oh well," I thought, unscrewing the cap. "Just this once, I'll wet my whistle with a high-calorie Coke."

Except I couldn't. The first gulp was so sweet I thought I was drinking liquid sugar (which essentially I was -- according to the label, the 20-ounce bottle contains 65 grams, or 13 teaspoons, of "sugars").

After the second gulp, I gave up. Emptying the bottle down the sink, I wondered, "Why in the world do people actually drink this stuff?"

All of which is a roundabout way of saying Gov. Paul LePage's new package of welfare-reform proposals contains one remarkably good idea: Ban sodas from the vast array of food items eligible for purchase under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps.

"The 'N' in SNAP stands for nutrition," said Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics, in an interview last week from her California headquarters. "And I don't think there's anyone who would argue that there's any nutrition to be found in soft drinks."

Simon, who holds a master's degree in public health from Yale University, has been researching and writing about the politics of food since 1996. Last June, she wrote a report titled "Food Stamps: Follow the Money -- Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?"

The answer, no surprise, is yes. And at the same time, many of those hungry Americans are using their SNAP debit cards to purchase foods that have nothing to do with a healthy diet and everything to do with obesity, diabetes and other burdens on the nation's health care system.

Simon's take on LePage's initiative: "It's going to go down (to defeat). Absolutely."

Here's why.

If Maine is like any of the other dozen or so states that have tried and failed to put the nutrition back in SNAP, the governor's proposal will draw fire from two fronts: anti-hunger advocacy groups and the food and beverage industry.

Their common objection: The decision on what (and what not) to buy should be left to the individual consumer, not to federal or state regulators.

To which Simon replies, "People are free to use their own money as they choose. But we make decisions all the time about how tax dollars are spent."

Simon points to the federal Women, Infants and Children food program, or WIC, as an example of how nutrition benefits should (and do) work. Eligible foods under that program are limited to cereal, high vitamin C fruit and vegetable juices, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, canned fish, dried and canned peas and beans, whole wheat bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, baby food and iron-fortified infant formula.

Asks Simon, "So why do we care more about women and their young children? With the food stamp program, half the participants are children, (yet) we don't seem to care as much about children on food stamps as we do the ones on the WIC program."

What's more, argues Simon, SNAP originally was intended to provide post-Depression farmers a market for their surplus crops -- it wasn't until 1964 that sugary soft drinks found their way into the food-stamp grocery bag.

But oh, how times have changed. These days, SNAP is fast approaching $80 billion annually in business for food producers like Kraft, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, food retailers like Walmart and Kroger, and even banks like JPMorgan Chase, which contract with the states to service the program's electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards.

In other words, when it comes to the estimated 250,000 Mainers (just under 19 percent of the state's population) now enrolled in the SNAP program, something so simple as declaring soda off-limits is infinitely easier said than done.

"The problem we have with this is that it singles out one particular product," said Newell Augur, who lobbies in Augusta for the Maine Beverage Association. "If the idea is about making folks healthier and reducing obesity, then it should be a more comprehensive approach."

Meaning Maine's soft-drink peddlers wouldn't object if candy, potato chips and other non-nutritious waist wideners also were declared off limits for SNAP purchases?

"Put it this way," Augur replied. "We'd have a much harder time opposing it."

Even that might not matter: Should the Legislature actually pass LePage's proposal, Maine will need a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture before it can cross anything off its SNAP shopping list.

And how often has the USDA granted such waivers?

"The only experience (other states have) is with the federal government refusing," said Simon. "They have yet to grant a waiver."

Nor, observed Simon, have sporadic efforts in Congress to make the USDA more waiver-friendly gained any traction in recent years.

"The fact is that there's this huge food lobby that currently benefits (from SNAP's you-crave-it-you-buy-it policy) to the tune of billions and billions of dollars a year," said Simon. "That's what we should really be looking at." Translation: If you think the lobbying against SNAP reform is intense at the state level, imagine the stakes when the debate shifts to Washington, D.C.

So why bother?

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett noted last week that while there are obvious "hurdles to overcome," this is still a battle worth waging.

"We wouldn't be putting something forward if we didn't think it was going to have a positive effect," said Bennett.

Imagine that: Gov. Paul LePage is about to lock horns with a well-heeled business lobby over a bill that, if passed, will undoubtedly improve the health of low-income Mainers.

Let's hope it's habit forming.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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