AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage says he wants to promote more nutritious foods for all Mainers, including those who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
LePage says he may propose a ban on using SNAP benefits to purchase junk foods, but critics say that approach may not pass federal muster.
LePage says he will have legislation in the January session aimed at improving the nutritional habits of poor Mainers. It may include a prohibition on the use of SNAP benefits to buy junk foods such as soda and candy. Augusta Republican Sen. Roger Katz has already filed legislation that's similar to a bill that was defeated two years ago. He says it's an issue that hasn't gone away.
"If you just go to a grocery store and you ask 100 people if they think we ought to be using taxpayer funds for junk food I bet you 98 of them will say no," Katz says. "It just seems to me to be common sense."
Katz says his bill will use the state's definition of taxable food to determine what items should be banned from the SNAP program. Nontaxable items, which would be allowed, are defined under tax law as grocery staples such as milk and bread.
The federal government, which pays entirely for the SNAP program, does prohibit purchase of alcohol, tobacco and other nonfood products, but has rejected bans on junk food purchases proposed in other states. Chris Hastedt is with Maine Equal Justice Partners, a low-income advocacy group. She says encouraging the purchase of more nutritious food is a laudable goal that her group strongly supports, but, "the objection we have is to this strategy, which is not going to pass muster at federal USDA."
Hastedt says that rather than a ban on junk food, a better approach might be to replicate a pilot program from Massachusetts in which SNAP recipients got a small bonus benefit for buying fresh fruits and vegetables, an approach adopted by Congress earlier this year. She says Maine could craft its own similar incentive.
"We could take the real concerns that we share with the administration about people having access to better nutrition and put some positive energy into constructing a plan that we know the feds will approve and that will actually improve the diet and help reduce hunger for Maine people," Hastedt says.
But LePage says a junk food ban will be part of his bill aimed at improving the nutritional habits of everyone. While he jokes about going on a diet to show how seriously he takes the issue of obesity in Maine, he says it's not a joking matter.
"It’s critical for the obesity problem," LePage says. "Think we gotta instill a sense of urgency in our kids so our kids don't start out obese."
LePage says technology could also help combat the problem. While on the campaign trail, he says he was impressed with a software program one Maine retailer showed him that could compare the cost of junk food purchases to more nutritional alternatives, with comparable prices.
"He came in and showed me that some receipts were like $13, $14 or $15 and the nutritional version of that was 20 percent less," LePage says.
LePage has not indicated exactly what will be in his legislation. Maine Equal Justice Partners' Chris Hastedt hopes the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee can work out a compromise to address any potential conflicts with federal policy.