May 13, 2013

Bill to limit food stamp purchases: Is it junk?

LePage says no, don't let recipients buy candy and soda, but the plan falters, and the public seems split.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Felicia Hoeflick doesn't drink coffee. The 22-year-old Portland mother relies on Pepsi to give her the energy to keep up with her toddler, Raiden.

click image to enlarge

"You've got parents out there that have kids, maybe they want a candy bar or a lollipop now and then," said Troy Premus, 47, of Portland, who has been on food stamps for four years. "I think it's wrong."

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Felicia Hoeflick, 22, is among people receiving food stamps who believes she should have the right to choose what she eats.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

"I wouldn't be able to do anything," she said, if she didn't have her daily dose of caffeine. But she could have to learn to live without it.

A bill under consideration by the Maine Legislature aims to prohibit food stamp recipients like Hoeflick from purchasing soda and other junk foods with funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

"I think it's kind of stupid, to tell you the truth," she said of the proposal.

Her sentiment was shared by the majority of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, which recommended Thursday that the bill not pass. The 8-5 committee vote was split along party lines, with Republicans supporting the bill.

Public opinion appeared to be divided, too, as evident from interviews last week in downtown Portland. For the most part, food stamp recipients liked having the freedom to choose what they buy, while those who aren't in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program felt that putting restrictions on junk food was reasonable.

"If we're giving them food stamps, they shouldn't be eating Fritos," said Tom Giovanniello, 52, of Kittery. "They're on the public dole. They should be trying to get better, not trying to feed their vice."

Kyler Henningsen, 43, of Falmouth thinks restricting what can be purchased with food stamps would be a good way to make sure children are eating healthy food.

"We already use that kind of intelligence in our schools," he said.

But should people who use food stamps never be allowed a treat?

"You've got parents out there that have kids, maybe they want a candy bar or a lollipop now and then," said Troy Premus, 47, of Portland, who has been on food stamps for four years.

"I think it's wrong," he said of the proposal.

The bill, which was proposed by Gov. Paul LePage and sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has yet to be scheduled for a vote on the floor of the Legislature.

Both LePage and Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Cebra bashed Democrats on Friday for failing to support what they called "common-sense welfare reform."

"The inconsistency of the majority party continues to stun me," LePage said in a prepared statement issued to the media. "On one hand, they talk about wanting to reduce health care costs. But on the other hand, they encourage people to eat junk food with absolutely no nutritional value, all while being funded by Maine taxpayers."

Some Democrats, including Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, support the proposal.

But even if the full Legislature passes the bill, the restrictions wouldn't necessarily take effect. It would only enable the state to seek a waiver from the federal government, which funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The program currently prohibits the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, prepared fast foods and non-food items, such as toilet paper, with food stamps. The bill proposes to add to that list some food items taxed by the state, including candy, fudge, iced tea and bottled water.

The federal government has never approved a waiver to allow a state to add items to the list. A handful of other states are considering similar bills, as several did last year, though none passed.

Premus said he doesn't know what he would eat if he couldn't buy Coke, York Peppermint Patties and potato chips. "Probably nothing," he said.

Robin Rage, on the other hand, prefers healthy food, but his circumstances restrict what he can buy with his food stamps. He lives in the woods with his dog.

(Continued on page 2)

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