AUGUSTA -–Proponents of a bill that could allow the state to prohibit food stamp recipients from buying soft drinks and junk food said Friday that the taxpayer-funded program shouldn't be used to purchase foods that could lead to obesity and health problems.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, one of the bill's lead sponsors, told lawmakers that the operative word in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is "nutrition."
"If we are using taxpayer dollars to provide food for those less fortunate among us, we ought to make sure that what we are providing is healthy," he said.
Opponents of the proposal stressed another word in the program: "supplemental."
With an average benefit of $239 a month, food stamps provide only part of a recipient's diet, said anti-poverty and industry groups, and there is no way to link food stamp purchases directly to obesity or diabetes.
Those were the central arguments heard by the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee over L.D. 1411, a proposal by Gov. Paul LePage that has supporters in both parties, including Katz, the assistant minority leader in the Senate, and Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop.
The bill is one of at least six proposals being considered nationwide that would put soda, candy and other junk foods on the short list of items that can't be bought with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards.
The bill does not specify what a junk food is, but relies on the state's definition of taxable food items, which includes candy, confections, fudge, iced tea, soft drinks and bottled water. Non-taxable items are defined as "grocery staples," items such as bread and milk.
Both definitions have caused confusion since Maine dropped its "snack tax" in 2000. Grocers have been found taxing items when they shouldn't and vice versa.
The federal program now prohibits purchases of alcohol, tobacco and other non-food products, as well as prepared foods from fast-food restaurants.
LePage's proposal would allow the state Department of Health and Human Services to seek a waiver from the federal government to ban the use of food stamps to buy soft drinks and junk food.
The federal government funds the program 100 percent. In March, more than 253,000 Mainers received benefits totaling $30.96 million, according to the DHHS.
Nearly 90 percent of Mainers who qualify for the program use it.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the median annual income of Mainers who receive food stamps is about $16,000.
Similar bills were reviewed by eight state legislatures last year, and none passed. The federal government has never approved a waiver.
The LePage administration and other proponents of L.D. 1411 argue that states should have the flexibility to determine what foods can be purchased with taxpayer-funded benefits.
Health food advocates agree, saying the government shouldn't subsidize bad diet choices that can increase health care costs -- sometimes paid for by taxpayers through Medicaid and Medicare.
In 2011, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a similar argument when he pitched a two-year pilot program to determine whether it would reduce obesity rates among food stamp users.
The federal government rejected the proposal, saying it would be too difficult to implement. It rejected a similar request from Minnesota.
The federal government's reluctance to ban junk food was articulated in a 2007 Food and Nutrition Service survey commissioned during the administration of President George W. Bush. The survey showed no clear standards to distinguish between healthy and non-healthy foods and said that restricting certain foods could increase the cost of the program.
The study found no evidence correlating food stamp use to poor dietary choices or health consequences.
One reason, it noted, is that food stamps only supplement a recipient's buying power, so the benefit doesn't necessarily dictate food choices.
"Low-income consumers and food stamp recipients are subject to the same factors that influence food choices throughout our society -- including marketing strategies, cultural preferences, the value of convenience, and personal tastes," the study said.
Anti-poverty groups made that argument on Friday.
Ann Woloson, with Maine Equal Justice Partners, told lawmakers that obesity and poor diets aren't restricted to one part of the population.
Other critics said the proposal unfairly targets poor people when obesity is a problem that affects the nation's entire population.
The Maine Grocers Association, a trade group for supermarkets and distributors, also opposed the proposal.
Shelley Doak, lobbyist for the organization, said the new restrictions would force grocers to retrain clerks and update computer systems.
Newell Auger, lobbyist for the Maine Beverage Association, which represents the soft drink industry, noted that consumption of full-calorie sodas declined 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, and that sales of bottled water climbed nearly 300 percent over the same period.
Auger said that if there was a strong correlation between soft drink consumption and obesity, then obesity rates should be decreasing.
The committee's work session on the bill has not yet been scheduled.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: