Florida’s proposed food-stamp restrictions

Florida state Rep. Ronda Storms has attracted media attention for proposing state legislation that would, among other things, expand the list of foods people can’t purchase with food stamps.

Storms (R) has submitted a bill that would prohibit participants in the federally funded, state-administered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from using food stamps to buy “foods containing trans fats; sweetened beverages, including sodas; sweets, such as Jello, candy, ice cream, pudding, popsicles, muffins, sweet rolls, cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobblers, pastries and doughnuts; and salty snack foods, such as corn-based salty snacks, pretzels, party mix, popcorn and potato chips” and other foods of the unhealthful variety. If passed, the law would also bar food-stamp use in restaurants. The proposed SNAP purchase restrictions are part of a bill targeting what Storms deems inappropriate uses of federal assistance funds.

The measure, which would be accompanied by “culturally sensitive” education efforts to explain the changes and to teach people how to make healthful food choices, is obviously aimed at curbing obesity, improving Floridians’ health — and preventing taxpayers from having to pay for other people’s potato chips.

But the text of the bill notes that its implementation would require waivers of federal law. As it stands, the federal government prohibits the use of SNAP-provided funds for the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, foods to be eaten in the store and hot food. But it allows such items as soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers and ice cream.

That may sound like crazy talk from a federal government that’s working hard to get Americans to eat better and weigh less. And as this 2008 report suggests, there’s certainly room for improvement in the diets of SNAP participants. But a document on the SNAP Web page makes a fair argument against restrictions such as those proposed in the Florida bill.

While it may seem like a no-brainer that the federal government shouldn’t be funding the purchase of doughnuts and sodas, making such rules work in the real world is a complicated prospect. For one thing, the document notes, sorting out all the combinations of ingredients in foods to determine which are healthful and which are not requires more sophistication than simply making a good list and a bad list. For another, enforcing such rules would fall to the vendor. That might be doable for big chain grocery stores with sophisticated, computerized cash-register systems. But what about the teenager working the register at the corner convenience store? How can we expect that person to sort out which purchases are valid and which are not, and then to tell the customer he can’t use his food stamps for a Twinkie?

It’s a big, messy issue. Many of us will be watching with interest as Storms’s bill moves forward.

(In related news, the USDA on Monday announced efforts to reduce SNAP fraud and maintain the program’s integrity.)

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