Florida GOP To Food Stamp Recipients: No Sweets For You

February 7, 2012 12:48 a.m.

Republicans in Florida are trying to prevent people on food stamps from buying items like candy, soda and chips with their state-funded assistance.

“You can’t feed a family on potato chips and Mountain Dew, which is the goal: feeding hungry people,” Florida State Sen. Ronda Storms (R), who introduced a bill to limit what food stamp recipients can buy, told TPM.

Storms said a number of grocery store cashiers told her that customers on food stamps would buy junk food, prime rib, lobster or other extravagant foods. This bill would introduce a little “fiscal responsibility” to the program, she said.Storms’ bill would also bar other welfare funds — like the debit cards some welfare recipients receive as part of Temporary Assistance For Needy Families — from being used at ATMs in casinos and strip clubs and anywhere out of state, as the Associated Press reports. But her evidence is largely anecdotal. It’s very difficult, she said, to calculate how much state assistance money is spent on sweets and other items people would term junk foods.

Florida Rep. Mark Pafford (D) introduced an amendment to the House bill to make an exception if the funds were used to buy a cupcake or cake for a child’s birthday. It was rejected, but Pafford told TPM that all hope is not lost. He said he is almost certain the food language will be stripped from the House bill, thanks to his more tea party-leaning Republican colleagues in the House. He said these Republicans are pushing back against government dictating what Floridians “can purchase and eat and consume.”

Even if the legislation passes, it remains unlikely that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would approve the bill, a necessary step before the law could be implemented. The USDA has rejected earlier efforts by Minnesota and New York. In New York, the soft drink industry lobbied hard against the effort. “Once you start going into grocery carts, deciding what people can or cannot buy, where do you stop?” American Beverage Association Senior Vice President Kevin Keane asked the New York Times. In New York, officials estimate that $75 million to $135 million in food stamps are spent on sugary beverages every year.

Storms told TPM that Coca-Cola has lobbied against her bill, too. “I don’t know the exact amount of money, but Coca-Cola isn’t coming down here to oppose this bill for peanuts,” she said.

“It’s a political year, and people are trying political things,” Pafford said.

It’s not just tea partiers and sugar-sellers who are lining up against the bill. To some it recalls a recent Florida law slammed from both sides of the aisle as smacking of unnecessary government overreach. In October, a U.S. district judge ordered an injunction on a Florida law that requires welfare applicants to first pass a drug test before receiving state aid.

Gov. Rick Scott (R) defended the legislation by saying that taxpayer dollars cannot be used to fund anyone’s drug habit. It turned out that only about 2 percent of those tested had drugs in their system, after the governor told CNN that welfare recipients use drugs at a higher level than the total population.

Like the welfare drug testing law, there seems to be little evidence suggesting a need for the food stamps bill. Ebony Yarbrough, a food and nutrition programs coordinator with the Florida Partnership to End Childhood Hunger, told TPM that people across all income levels have very similar shopping habits. In fact, if you examine it more closely, lower-income shoppers tend to make healthier choices, Yarbrough said. Instead of limiting what people can purchase with food stamps, increase the access to and availability of healthy foods, she added.

Florida State University Political Science Professor Carol Weissert told TPM that Florida won’t be the last state to try to restrict the use of food stamps. “But the effort hasn’t been very persuasive to federal officials (and food stamps is a federally funded program),” she said in an email. “While obesity is a major health problem in this country, this seems a rather invasive and paternalistic way to deal with it. Educational programs targeted at children have proven effective; this has not.

In an interview with TPM, Storms said the “tipping point” was coming — at which time the USDA would no longer be able to turn down the calls for waivers. She expressed her dissatisfaction that the U.S. would cut defense programs but leave “no Twinkie behind.”

But, of course, it’s up to the USDA to determine what can and can’t be purchased with food stamps. And so far, the department is not open to other ideas.

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