AUGUSTA – The LePage administration is renewing its push to prohibit food stamp recipients from buying soda or candy in hopes that President Trump will be more receptive to the restrictions than his predecessor.

In a letter sent Friday to federal agriculture officials, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services requested authorization to block individuals from using food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened drinks and candy. The request comes less than a year after the Obama administration denied a similar waiver request and after the LePage administration failed to get the issue through the Maine Legislature.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the waiver “will allow Maine to take steps to improve the health of its citizens, particularly those most challenged with limited food budgets.” Sugar-sweetened beverages and candy are among the most common “high-sugar-content items” purchased through the food stamp program – known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – according to Mayhew.

“As you are likely aware, studies show Maine to be the most obese state in New England,” Mayhew wrote to Bonnie Brathwaite, SNAP director for the Northeast region. “Numerous studies confirm that as much as two-thirds of Maine’s adult population is overweight or obese. This impacts the quality of life for Maine residents, and the chronic health conditions associated with obesity are costly to Maine taxpayers. Now, more than ever, SNAP funds need to be used to improve nutrition and health of low-income people by excluding purchases of products with no nutritional value.”

Additionally, the LePage administration is seeking a USDA waiver to direct roughly $4 million in grant funds to local food banks, schools and community organizations rather than to nutrition education programs.

The LePage administration submitted a similar request to the Obama administration to block candy and soda sales in November 2015 but was never granted a waiver. The waiver denial became yet-another flashpoint between Maine’s Republican governor and the Obama administration over food stamps and welfare programs.

While the federal government funds food stamps, states actually administer the program. After USDA officials expressed “significant concerns” about aspects of the state’s waiver request last year, LePage fired back in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in which he mocked the federal agency and threatened to stop administering the food stamp program.

“It’s time for the federal government to wake up and smell the energy drinks,” LePage wrote to Vilsack in June 2016. “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. I suggest you start browsing the Maine classifieds for commercial real estate leases.”

Federal officials responded by warning that such a move could leave food stamp recipients without assistance, and the state never stopped administering the program. Now, the LePage administration is hoping for better luck with President Trump.

“We must restore integrity to this program by advancing this common sense reform of prohibiting the use of food stamps for the purchase of soda and candy,” Mayhew said in a statement. “We do not need to debate or study whether there is any nutritional value to soda and candy.”

The federal government has never granted a waiver to block sales of candy or soda, despite nearly 10 requests by states.

Maine consistently has among the highest food stamp usage rates in the nation. Nearly 180,000 residents of the state – or roughly one out of every seven Mainers – received assistance through the SNAP program in November 2016, the last month for which federal data were available.

A press release from Maine DHHS also highlighted the state’s high obesity rates, with more than 30 percent of adults in the state labeled as “obese,” up from 11 percent in 1990. More than $700 million is spent annually in Maine on obesity-related medical expenditures, and roughly one-third of that comes from taxpayer-financed Medicare and Medicaid programs, according to DHHS. LePage himself has struggled with his weight and recently acknowledged having bariatic surgery, which facilitates weight loss by reducing the size of the stomach.

A recent USDA analysis of SNAP spending at a “leading grocery retailer” nationwide highlighted the problem users buying sugary drinks and candy.

Nearly 10 percent of SNAP dollars – or more than $600 million – in fiscal year 2011 were spent on “sweetened beverages,” which includes everything from soda and energy drinks to sweetened instant tea and many fruit drinks. That category is second only to spending on meat, poultry and seafood, according to the USDA analysis. Spending on soft drinks alone at the national retailer was $358 million, compared to $254 million spent on milk. More SNAP dollars were even spent on candy than on baby food that year – $138 million and $127 million, respectively.

Yet retailers, advocates for the poor and others have consistently fought against attempts in Maine and other states to block sales of soda or candy with food stamps. Some argue the food stamp spending trends merely reflect a national problem.

“Sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America,” Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services under Obama, told The New York Times last month after the release of the department’s analysis. Concannon is also a former DHHS commissioner for the state of Maine. “This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?

Additionally, the USDA has taken steps to encourage the use of food stamps on healthier foods by expanding their use at farmer’s markets.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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